Michigan clings to its perch atop Big 10

August 14, 2001 3:21 AM
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This week we conclude our overview of the college football season with rundowns of the remaining conferences of the Bowl Championship Series, the Big 10, the SEC, the ACC and Notre Dame.

THE BIG TEN

Michigan is the class of this conference. There’s not much to separate the rest of the teams and you can look for them to take turns beating each other throughout the season. The Wolverines defense looks to be outstanding, strong in all elements: line, linebackers and secondary.

The offense has lost QB Drew Henson, RB Anthony Thomas and WR David Terrell. But John Navarre, who replaces Henson, started four games last year and won three. Navarre brings experience to the job. Chris Perry (5.4 yards per carry) will be an adequate replacement for Thomas. Marquis Walker (49 rec., 609 yds, 4 TD), figures to be the No. 1 receiver. The kicking game is rock solid.

Illinois, a disappointing 5-6 a year ago, looks to bounce back. The Illini return 13 starters, including all of the skill positions. Senior QB Kurt Kittner is the most prolific passer in school history.

Purdue returns 10 starters on defense, but the Boilermakers must now face life without QB Drew Brees. His successor is Brandon Hance, whose total experience consists of two early games last season in which he completed 5-of-9 passes for 40 yards and one touchdown.

Northwestern, led by QB Zak Kustok and Heisman hopeful RB Damien Anderson, will put tons of points on the board, but the defense is mediocre. Case in point ”” the Wildcats were torched for 66 points by Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.

Wisconsin and Michigan State are a case of Jack Spratt could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean. The Badgers, with QB Brooks Bollinger, should have a good passing attack. However, the Wisconsin ground game appears deficient. The Spartans, with powerful tailbackT.J. Duckett, will do all right on the ground. Michigan State appears less proficient through the air.

Ohio State will have a new look without veteran head coach John Cooper, who was fired after 13 years in Columbus. Cooper posted a winning record (111-43-4), but his failures against Michigan (2-10-1) and in bowls (3-8) cost him his job. Jim Tressell moves over from 1-AA power Youngstown State to lead the Buckeyes. Ohio State will be in a rebuilding mode, but the word is that Tressel landed an extraordinarily fine recruiting class. So, the faithful along High Street may soon have something to cheer about.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno needs two victories to surpass Bear Bryant’s Division 1-A record of 323 and he’ll get them somewhere along the line. But if the past two seasons are an indication, the Nittany Lion program is on a downward cycle. Paterno may be slipping. On what may be an ominous note, three new assistant coaches are on a staff that previously was noted for its stability.

Iowa returns 16 starters evenly split between offense and defense. The Hawkeyes program is on the upswing and you can look for improvement on last year’s 3-9 record.

Minnesota will score plenty of points with nine starters returning on an offense that was potent a year ago. The defense is another matter. Only three starters are back and the Gophers will be hard-pressed to equal last season’s 6-6 mark.

Indiana will return the league’s most exciting player in QB Antwaan Randle El. Unfortunately, he’s been surrounded by a dismal supporting cast. Coach Cam Cameron has switched him to receiver, but he’ll still key the offense as a dual threat. The Hoosiers will score, but not enough. They won three games last year, but may not do as well this season.

SEC EAST

The power of the Southeastern Conference is in the East Division, where both Florida and Tennessee hold forth. Their Oct. 6 contest will have a huge effect as to the ulimate league champion. Florida has the edge since the game is at Gainesville.

Florida returns 17 starters, including all the skill positions, from a team that last year lost three games ”” road setbacks to Mississippi State, Florida State during the regular season and to Miami in the Sugar Bowl.

Tennessee began a year ago as defending national champions, but got off to a stumbling start. Then with freshman Casey Clausen taking over at quarterback, the Volunteers finished strongly in the conference before bowing to Kansas State in the Gator Bowl. Tennessee, which returns 17 starters, is one of the rare Southern teams willing to play outside its own region. The Vols play Nov. 3 at Notre Dame and have a home-and-home series with the Irish slated for 2004 and 2005.

Georgia begins its first season with former Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt at the helm. His predecessor, Jim Donnan, directed the Bulldogs to bowl victories in each of his final four seasons and finished with a 40-19 record in his five-year stint at Athens. Nevertheless, he was fired. Richt’s primary task is finding a replacement for departed QB Quincy Carter.

South Carolina was the surprise team in the nation last year, receiving new life under coach Lou Holtz. The Gamecocks were 8-4 after a climactic triumph over Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. South Carolina returns 16 starters and will post another winning campaign although short of championship contention.

Vanderbilt, 3-8 a year ago, has a good quarterback in senior Greg Zolman and a decent defense. If an adequate running attack can be developed, the Commodores may surprise a few people.

Kentucky was 2-9 last year and the situation my get worse before it gets better. Former assistant Guy Morriss takes over as head coach after Hal Mumme was fired with an NCAA investigation hanging over the program. Any victory in the conference would be an upset.

SEC WEST

LSU is the best in the West Division. Coach Nick Saban, in his first year at Baton Rouge, turned the Bayou Tigers into a formidable entity. Louisiana State returns 17 starters, including 10 on defense, from last year’s 8-4 squad. The Tigers posted wins over Tennessee and against Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl. Just how far LSU will rise nationally will be determined in games Sept. 29 at Tennessee and Oct. 6 against Florida.

Mississippi State cannot be taken lightly. The offense should be outstanding, with all veterans at the skill positions. But the defense line is a big question mark. Only one starter returns and coach Jackie Sherrill hopes to fill the gaps with junior college transfers.

Arkansas suffered through an injury-riddled campaign in 2000, but has a solid nucleus of 13 returning starters. If all stay healthy, the Razorbacks should improve upon last year’s 6-6 record. Having seven home games helps.

Mississippi starts a quarterback whose name is famous in SEC circles. Eli Manning, the son of Ole Miss great Archie Manning and brother of Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning, has potential for greatness. Manning is complemented by a strong cast of veterans on offense. The Rebels will score plenty of points, which is good because the defense is of dubious quality.

Alabama, picked as a national title contender in last year’s preseason polls, finished a dismal 3-8. As a result, coach Mike DuBose was dismissed and Dennis Franchione was brought in from TCU, where he rebuilt that program to respectability. Franchione must decide at quarterback between senior Andrew Zow and junior Tyler Watts. Zow is the better passer, while Watts is the superior runner. There is never a shortage of talent in Tuscaloosa and the Crimson Tide will be an improved. The NCAA investigation and possible sanctions, however, are looming.

Auburn had a good team last year, going 9-4, but most of the key players are gone and this will be a down year.

ACC

Florida State wins the conference championship every year, but so what? The ACC is the least competitive of the six power conferences and the Seminoles simply have such overwhelming material compared to the other league teams. Basically, FSU plays a three-game schedule: Miami (Fla.), Florida and a bowl game. The Seminoles lost all three last year and will do so again this year.

The Orange Bowl was downright embarrassing as coach Bobby Bowden stood on the sidelines like a deer caught in the headlights, clueless in trying to handle Oklahoma. Bowden has some rebuilding to do this time around. FSU lost 12 starters, including Heisman Trophy-winning QB Chris Weinke. There is no experienced quarterback on hand and Bowden’s prize recruit, QB Joe Mauer out of St. Paul, Minn., chose to play pro baseball and skip college.

Georgia Tech may be the team that can beat the Seminoles. The Yellow Jackets, 9-3, a year ago, return 16 starters including playmaking QB George Godsey. Last year’s young defense has matured and the Tech kicking game is very strong. Georgia Tech begins its campaign on Aug. 26 against Syracuse in the Kickoff Classic at East Rutherford, N.J. The Jackets should win that game. The big test will come Sept. 15 when Tech invades Tallahassee to face FSU. That game will impact the national rankings.

Clemson will be on the prowl. The Tigers were 9-3 a year ago and return their key offensive personnel that include QB Woodrow Dantzler and 1,000-yard rusher Travis Zachary. The Achilles Heels could be on the defensive end, where only four starters return.

North Carolina State returns 14 starters. Most prominent is QB Philip Rivers, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year when he passed for 3,054 yards and 25 touchdowns as a true freshman. If the Wolfpack defense can be tightened, they may do as well or even better than last season’s 8-4 log.

North Carolina has one of the league’s four new coaches in John Bunting. The Tar Heels have some decent players for Bunting, who will need them in their first two games at Oklahoma and Texas.

Virginia has former New York Jets coach Al Groh taking over in Charlottesville for the venerable George Welsh, who retired last year. The Cavaliers program had started on a downward cycle and Groh faces a rebuilding operation.

Maryland hired former Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen to help revive a dead program. Friedgen, a Maryland alum, has seven home games and that will help.

Wake Forest lured Jim Grobe from his position at Ohio University, where he elevated a moribund program to respectability. Grobe brought most of his Ohio U staff with him and has installed an option offense built around sophomore QB Anthony Young.

Duke was doomed last year by a sputtering offense and weak defense. The Blue Devils were 0-11 and things won’t get much better this season.

INDEPENDENT

Notre Dame finished 9-3 last year, but that third loss was a 41-9 pasting from Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. This season should disclose whether that game was merely an aberration or whether the Irish program still has a long way to go to regain a place among college football’s elite.

The team is loaded with veterans on both sides of the ball. The Irish have a genuine speedster in RB/KR Julius Jones, something the team has lacked in recent seasons. Notre Dame is the only true national college football team. The Irish play schools from the Big 12, Big 10, the Pac-10 and the Big East. It’s a murderous schedule. Nevertheless, coach Bob Davie’s squad will win a lot more often than it loses.