Spartans scheduled to rule

Aug 6, 2002 5:40 AM

Remember when Michigan and Ohio State dominated the Big Ten? Parity has arrived.

Last year, Illinois won its first outright Big Ten title since 1983. This season, look toward East Lansing and the Michigan State Spartans. The reason: a friendly schedule and perhaps the best passing connection in the nation.

QB Jeff Smoker passing to WR Charlie Rogers will be a common TD description in game stats this year. Both juniors, Smoker tossed 18 TD passes last year in hitting 63 percent of his throws. Rogers caught 57 passes for over 1,200 yards. With star tailback T.J. Duckett now in the pros, State will turn Smoker loose and make a fire.

The Spartans play seven of their first eight games at home. Even better is that Rice, Iowa and Michigan are the only teams on the slate that finished above .500 last year. Plus, Ohio State and Illinois aren’t there. When a school has those breaks, it has to capitalize.

Michigan has to figure in the mix because Lloyd Carr teams usually are. The Wolverines must improve on an 0-3 ATS road mark from a year ago as favorites of 3-to-7 points. Quarterback John Navarre passed for over 2,000 yards last year, but could find himself in a controversy for the starting role with great depth at the position.

Carr is employing an new offense system that should help, but a victory over Ohio State is the foremost goal in Ann Arbor. Anything else would be gravy.

Illinois figures to take a step back this year, especially without stellar QB Kurt Kittner, who graduated. The Illini will still be fighting, but this could be the Penn State of the past two seasons.

Speaking of Nittany Lions, legendary coach Joe Paterno began rallying the troops late last year and should return to a bowl game. Penn State was 6-1 ATS in its last seven games, despite experiencing its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1932. Count on the Lions to roar back in 2002.

Wisconsin is another quality team that should rebound from a disappointing 2001 campaign. The Badgers open the year at UNLV and should fill Sam Boyd Stadium with their Sea of Red.

Coach Barry Alvarez has 48 lettermen returning, including RB Anthony Davis, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Davis ranked fifth nationally in rushing (1,466 yards) and should do even better with the dangerous passing tandem of QB Brooks Bollinger and WR Lee Evans back. Evans believes he will be ready despite ligament damage that required surgery. If he is, Wisconsin will be part of the national title picture.

Ohio State was happy with Jim Tressel’s ability to beat Michigan in just his first try after years of failure under John Cooper. Tressel’s second year is about a repeat showing against the Wolverines and finding a dependable QB. The Buckeyes had five starters miss the spring game due to injury and could get out of the starting blocks slowly.

Purdue was more like Pur-don’t last year after starting 4-0 SU. Joe Tiller is still looking for QB replacement for Drew Brees. Tiller would settle for an offense that could score. The Boilermakers scored 17 points or less in four of the last seven games after exceeding that figure in 49 of 52 previous games.

Northwestern never recovered last year from the tragic death of strong safety Rashidi Wheeler. This year the problem is replacing QB Zak Kustok and the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher Damien Anderson. If Northwestern loses in Week 3 to Duke in Evanston, you’ll know this will be a very long season.

Gerry DiNardo takes over at Indiana, where he hopes to have better luck than he did at LSU. His toughest task will be to replace the exciting Antwaan Randle El at quarterback. The Hoosiers would be wise to pound the ball behind 279-pound runningback Jeremi Johnson.

Iowa and Minnesota are on the rise and fully capable of knocking off anyone at home. The Hawkeyes need to find replacements on the DL, where three of their front four have graduated. The Golden Gophers should return to the bowl scene this year with 14 starters back, including all three linebackers and a stellar kicking game





Michigan, Ohio St  



Mich St, Penn St  






Illinois, Purdue  



Field (all others)*  



*””Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa.