August 12, 2005

The Best Conference is...(six-part series)

Each year, fans from any of the six BCS conferences make their claims to superiority. In fairness, it is tough to measure leagues against one another by pairing them up due to different sizes. In this analysis, I will be using the top five schools from each conference to make my decision. However, it should be noted that some conferences will receive marks for having strong teams that don't make their top five.

My friend, Rob, is about to experience his chin hitting the floor. The best conference going into the 2005 season is the Big Ten.

The top five for the Big Ten will be:
1. Michigan
2. Iowa
3. Ohio State
4. Purdue
5. Michigan State

The reasoning for the top slot is that any one of those first four teams could make the BCS. Purdue has a dreamy schedule with no Michigan or Ohio State. The Buckeyes return a lot of talent from last year and if they work out their QB concerns and upset Texas then the sky is the limit. Iowa is a very strong team, getting Michigan at home and at Columbus, and the Wolverines are a national contender.

The key for the Big Ten being #1 is their depth of returning quarterbacks. Chad Henne at Michigan returns after a stellar freshman season after Lloyd Carr loosened the reins and Mike Hart was discovered for the rushing attack. Henne finished with 25 touchdown passes and 2,743 yards passing.

Drew Tate at Iowa would be the second strongest returnee of the conference, going for 20 touchdowns and 2,786 yards. The last 56 of those coming on the memorable ending of the Capital One Bowl versus LSU when Tate found Warren Holloway with :00 left to win the game, 30-25.

Drew Stanton came on for the Spartans halfway through the year before a shoulder injury put him out during the Michigan game. In that game, Stanton was 10-13 for 95 yards and rushed for a touchdown before being knocked out. Michigan used the momentum and staged a great comeback, winning 45-37 in triple OT after trailing 27-10 with 5:44 to play.

Stanton appeared in eight games, throwing eight TD passes and amassing over 1,600 yards. However, Stanton rushed for 687 yards on 96 carries for 5 touchdowns. Stanton comes into this season as the #1 QB for MSU after Damon Dowdell graduated.

What Stanton couldn't finish for the Spartans at Michigan, Troy Smith did for Ohio State. The junior filled in for Justin Zwick and torched the Wolverines for 145 yards rushing while going 13-23 for 241 yards passing with 2 touchdowns.

The Buckeyes have a controversy on their hands though, as Zwick played more in 2004 and will be the starter for the opening game due to Smith's off-season problems causing a suspension for the first game.

Brandon Kirsch at Purdue rounds us out going 58-94 for 711 yards, with 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions last year as a backup to Kyle Orton.

Running backs? Surprisingly, this is the weakest area for the Big Ten coming into this year.

Mike Hart exploded as a frosh in 2004 for Michigan, gaining 1,455 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns. Hart was discovered after the Notre Dame loss, and Michigan's offense responded. It was the Wolverine defense that did the undoing in some big games last year, not the offense.

Jason Teague ran for 687 yards for Michigan State, splitting time with two other rushers and Stanton's ability to scramble. Teague and sophomore, Jehuu Caulcrick (113-619-5) return to form a formidible duo.

Purdue returns solid contributors in Jerod Void (159-625-3) and Brandon Jones (113-477-2). The ground game, however, is only a nice compliment in Purdue's attack. Close yardage situations, especially in the red zone hurt the Boilermakers.

Iowa returns a bevy of backs, but last year, they couldn't stay healthy. Marques Simmons is the leading returner with 194 yards. With three returners on the offensive line, Iowa will drastically improve as long as the injury bug stays away from Iowa City.

Ohio State is in the same boat as Iowa minus the injuries. OSU running backs haven't been good in a while minus Maurice Clarett. Returning after 381 yards gained is Antonio Pittman. Erik Haw will feature prominently and incoming freshman Maurice Wells will get his chances. Ohio State does return 4 starters on the o-line, so there should be improvement.

Wide receivers?
Every team in my top five for the conference returns two receivers who caught at least 25 passes. The lowest man on the totem pole is only the explosive Ted Ginn, Jr. at Ohio State with 25 catches for 359 yards and 2 touchdowns. Opposite Ginn will be Santonio Holmes. Holmes led the Buckeyes with 769 yards on 55 receptions and 7 touchdowns.

Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel at Iowa combined for 121 receptions and 1,649 yards with 13 touchdowns. Perhaps the flashiest duo resides in Ann Arbor. Steve Breaston and Jason Avant will fill the hole left by Braylon Edwards. Even with Edwards' ballhawking, the UM #2 and #3 combined for 72 receptions, 768 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Purdue will always place quality wide receivers in their offensive scheme. Kyle Ingraham (51-624-7) and Dorien Bryant (38-584-3) return. Rounding out with Jerramy Scott (39-444-3) and Matt Trannon (36-405-2) at Michigan State.

Ohio State returns four starters as well as Michigan. Iowa returns three along with Purdue and Michigan State.

Hit or miss here...Iowa and Michigan State will have to lean on their productive offenses, replacing at least seven on defense. Michigan sits the fence, returning six, but with heavy losses in the secondary, and Ohio State and Purdue return practically everyone.

What helps the Big Ten are those left out. Wisconsin is traditionally strong and will go bowling this year, and Penn State has a standout defense, but a high school offense. Improve that offense and Penn State will win 7 or 8. Illinois made one of the better off-season hires in Ron Zook. Without the pressure-cooker that Florida was, Zook will be given more time to improve the talent in Champaign. Northwestern and Minnesota are dangerous teams to play away from home and even Indiana is renewing optimism after new coach Terry Hoeppner was hired from Miami, Ohio.

Tingle's Takes:
- I like Kirk Ferentz at Iowa but when the right NFL job opens he's gone.
- Jim Tressel will finally experience a year all about football and nothing about Maurice Clarett. Look out.
- The Big Ten / MAC challenge, otherwise known as opening weekend for most, will feature yet another sweep by the Big Ten.
- Texas will end Ohio State's national title hopes. I think the Buckeyes are conference title material, but Texas will put an end to these dreams of Roses in Columbus in a hurry.
- Look for Purdue to tank after they beat Notre Dame, just like last year.

My pick for the title: Michigan wins in a tiebreak against Iowa thanks to the win in Iowa City by the Wolverines.

Upset: Michigan will have one loss coming into the OSU Michigan State.

Bowl Layout:
Michigan - BCS
Iowa - Outback (can't repeat to Capital One Bowl); strong BCS at-large possibility
Ohio State - Capital One
Purdue - Alamo
Michigan State - Sun
Wisconsin - Music City
Penn State - Motor City

Photo credits:
Troy Smith - Jay LaPrete (AP)
Ted Ginn Jr. -
Warren Holloway - NY Times
Zook at Illinois - AP

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Heavenly time period: College football season until the championship game of March Madness.