Pickin' On the Big Ten Report Card, Part 1
They're scattered among things like 35-3, a 1-6 bowl game record, the fall of the Michigan dynasty, a tragically unwarranted and completely unjustified preseason overrating, several regressions to the mean, and the worst sendoff since the last episode of "Seinfeld."
So we'll go through the league team by team, painful as that is, to build up the successes and try to understand the failures of Big Ten football in 2008. Yes, I used "success" and "Big Ten football" in the same sentence without the connecting phrase "lack of." Deal with it, Buck. Every team gets an overall grade and a quick look at its prognosis for the 2009 season. For you Big Ten fans, I promise you it's not all bad news; for you Big Ten haters, I promise you it's not all good.
If you go from the Rose Bowl to no bowl in a single season, you can't expect a very good grade. At this point Ron Zook is in real danger of having nothing to show for four years of Juice Williams besides a win over Ohio State, a total system failure in the Rose Bowl, and a bunch of neato-mosquito highlight film. Without a credible running threat, the Illini offense became just one man. Unlike in movie trailers, everybody counted on that one man. Their best win was over Iowa, which is actually saying something this year, but all their offensive firepower didn't translate to victories otherwise. You can say Zook counted on Williams too much, but what else did he have to count on?
2009 prognosis: Weak. Juice Williams hasn't said squat about returning for his senior year, but he almost certainly will. True shutdown corner Vontae Davis is gone, though, and so is offensive coordinator/recruiting powerhouse Mike Locksley. They'll miss both those guys and, as rare of a talent as Williams is, he won't get much help from the rest of the team.
The Hoosiers' Great Leap Forward turned out to be about as effective as, well, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, which left him with a starving populace and many thousands of tons of worthless pig iron. There were bad signs even before the season, as Bill Lynch complained that many of his players weren't putting forth their best effort, and quarterback Kellen Lewis spent almost the entire offseason suspended for the ever-classic "undisclosed violation of team rules."
Lewis's suspension was miraculously lifted in time for the season opener, but it quickly became clear that he wasn't much without the now-departed James Hardy. Having the league's worst defense in almost every statistical category certainly didn't help matters any. The only thing preventing the Hoosiers from getting an F is their inexplicable win over Northwestern.
2009 prognosis: Grim. Lewis, who already has IU's career touchdown pass record, will be back next year, but might not keep his job, as Ben Chappell did well when he played. The defense is youngish and lacks playmakers. There's plenty of turmoil surrounding the program as well. It just doesn't look good.
Four losses and they get an A? Yes. Those four losses were by a combined 12 points. Moreover, the Hawkeyes are the only team in the Big Ten with a victory over a top-five opponent, and the only Big Ten team to win a bowl game. The team was in disarray during the offseason, and as late as October 4th, it looked like Kirk Ferentz's days were numbered in Iowa City. But they turned it around and finished the season white-hot.
It wasn't just Shonn Greene's doing, either. For the first time in a few years, the Hawkeyes had a decent passing attack which kept defenses off-balance. The real key to Iowa's success, though, was its defense. Coordinator Norm Parker's rope-a-dope strategy of allowing almost unlimited passing yards and first downs between the 20s, but making teams pay in the red zone, worked brilliantly this season. It goaded teams into overconfidence, but what do you know? Hawkeye defenders picked off 23 passes, by far the most in the conference.
2009 prognosis: Positive. You don't replace Shonn Greene; you just line up somebody else in his spot. It's not like Jewel Hampton, the presumptive starter, is a huge step backwards, though. All-Everything defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul will be harder to replace, but just about everybody else on the defense returns. If the Hawks don't lose their swagger in the off-season, they'll be a force in the conference in 2009.
It's hard to think of a single thing the Wolverines did well in 2008, other than punting. The offense was sick, and not in the good way. Wolverine quarterbacks completed less than half their passes, while the running attack wasn't even good for 150 yards per game. The defense played acceptably on occasion; in fact, they were flat-out brilliant against Minnesota. But if you lose to Toledo in a season where the Rockets wound up firing their coach, and you end the longest bowl streak in college football, you just can't get a passing grade.
Still, while Wolverine fans might feel as though they're stuck in Dante's Inferno, the rest of us know they're just spending an evening in Borgnine's Sauna. Rich Rodriguez's first year at West Virginia was identically bad. Things got better.
2009 prognosis: Cautiously optimistic. "Up" isn't the only direction the Wolverines can go next season, but they were a very young team exploring the possibilities of Creepy Ninja Football(tm) for the first time. RichRod's track record brings some hope, but be not afraid: Punter Zoltan Mesko still has one more season of eligibility!
MICHIGAN STATE: B+
Mark Dantonio should get some sort of award from the American Psychological Association. In two seasons he has completely erased all traces of Sparty's tendency towards Spartyness. This was the first season in a long time when the Spartans only lost the games they should have lost.
Of course, when they lost, it tended to be pretty epic, so maybe there's still some lingering Spartyness after all. Let's face it, the overall color of this season was beige. There wasn't anything the Spartans really stunk at, but there wasn't any phase of the game where they stood out, either.
2009 prognosis: Mixed. Javon Ringer is gone, and so is Brian Hoyer. Inexperience in the offensive backfield is usually not a good thing, but this team is lightly touched by graduation otherwise. It's going to be mighty hard to break the nine-win rock if a couple playmakers don't assert themselves on both sides of the ball.
At one point the Gophers were 7-1 but that was just a point they passed through on their way to 7-6. Tim Brewster's team just couldn't close and couldn't stay on the field with teams equal or superior to them in talent. The Gophers were absolutely dreadful at running the ball. Eighteen individuals rushed for more yards in 2008 than the Gophers did as a team. The defense started off showing improvement under new coordinator Ted Roof but wound up being something of a letdown, giving up 29, 35, 55, and 42 points in their final four games. Oh, and they lost to Michigan. Feh.
2009 prognosis: Weak. This is still a very, very young Gopher team, but they'll be breaking in new coordinators next season. Offensive coordinator/minor spread guru Mike Dunbar resigned, and I'm not sure if his resignation was inside or outside quotation marks. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, meanwhile, has joined Gene Chizik's staff at Auburn, meaning there's a slight chance the Gophers could get him back in three years. Brewster, though, is adamant that his next coordinators will be "people that want to be at Minnesota." He hasn't yet turned the Gophers into a destination job, however. Whoever takes over on defense will be the Gophers' fifth defensive coordinator in five years. That's not a hopeful sign.
Next Thursday we'll run down the rest of the alphabet.