CNNSI.com College Football Preview - 2002 College Football


 

Big Ten on a quest for respect

Posted: Tuesday August 13, 2002 11:13 AM



Ron Turner is taking his team's low preseason ranking in stride. Rick Stewart/Allsport
 1    Michigan State
 2    Michigan
 3    Ohio State
 4    Illinois
 5    Penn State
 6    Purdue
 7    Wisconsin
 8    Minnesota
 9    Iowa
 10    Northwestern
 11    Indiana
 7
Games -- out of its first eight -- that Michigan State will play at home. It's not inconceivable that the Spartans could be unbeaten when they visit Michigan on Nov. 2.
"We were 0-4, and you get up in the morning and say, 'God, are we that bad?'"

-- Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on his team's horrendous start in 2001 before rallying to finish 5-6.
By Brian Hamilton, Special to CNNSI.com

What does a Big Ten team needs to do to gain a little respect? Well, Ron Turner doesn't have the answer for that. Or at least he's not telling. Because here he sat, fresh off a Big Ten title and BCS berth in 2001, with 14 starters returning, and his Illinois squad was nowhere to be found in the preseason voting for the league favorites.

This is the Big Ten's biggest problem. A long, long absence (with few exceptions) from the national title scene has eroded confidence in anything but one-hit wonders. Link the phrases "defending champion" and "preseason favorite," and you get the kind of look that suggests a padded room might suit your needs.

"If you're not sure who to pick, go with Michigan or Ohio State -- it's a pretty safe bet," Turner said. "And we have uncertainty at quarterback. So when people look at it, they see the uncertainty at quarterback and that maybe puts a little doubt in your mind. But if you look on paper, and the defending champion has 14 starters back, you'd think that you'd be picked a little higher. But that's all right. That's the way it goes."

The Big Ten may well have flirted with national title races in the not-too-distant memory, but it's been a while since any squad actually cashed in that chit. Michigan won a share of the national championship in 1997 -- and that was 30 years after the last consensus national champion, Ohio State in 1968. All told, in more than three decades, the Big Ten has only had the slightest sniff of the top of the mountain.

For every coach or administrator involved in the league, there are about five explanations for the lull. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez cited the cyclical nature of college football, pointing out that the Pac-10 had these problems a few years back and now has a hammerlock on the national scene. Most coaches delve into the old scholarship-limit argument, citing greater parity that makes it nearly impossible for a Big Ten team to come through the regular season unscathed.

"You've got to run the table to get to the championship game," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "The tougher the table is, the tougher it is to run."

Others would love to see the Big Ten add a 12th member to offset the quirky uneven scheduling and add a championship game, a la the SEC or Big 12. (For the record, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at the league's media day that a 12th member is not an imminent reality.) Michigan coach Lloyd Carr observed that the 11-team structure has created "too many ties" since its inception, which in Carr's mind "creates a situation where people question the strength of your conference."

Of course, so will a very pedestrian 2-4 record in bowl games following the 2001 campaign. The league's lackluster postseason showing the past two seasons only reinforced the notion that, in general, the Big Ten isn't as strong as its competition.

"In [the last two years], we had great regular seasons, but in neither season did we have the kind of postseason that we wanted," Delany said. "What we all look forward to is taking a step forward."

One small step for the Big Ten won't be one giant leap in college football in 2002, anyway. At the league's media gathering in Chicago last month, representatives from the Fiesta Bowl left a pile of souvenir hats for patrons to scoop up. It didn't take too long for the championship game merchandise to vanish; after all, that's probably as close as anyone from the Big Ten is going to get to it.

Asad Abdul-Khaliq isn't on anyone's preseason All-Big Ten lists, but if one extrapolated his performance in 2001 once Minnesota handed him the full-time starting quarterback slot, he easily could have earned a spot.

As a sophomore, Abdul-Khaliq was embroiled in a quarterback duel with the since-departed Travis Cole, but in the midst of a disappointing season, Gophers coaches handed the reins to the signal-caller with the most upside. Abdul-Khaliq has a good arm and slippery improvisation skills; it was just a matter of providing him the time and confidence to show it.

So, in the last two games of the year against Iowa and Wisconsin, Abdul-Khaliq tossed for 584 yards and six touchdowns. As long as a rebuilt line offers protection, he'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal to make Minnesota an offense to reckon with after a year of inconsistency.


HOT: Champaign, Ill.

On Saturdays, it's the Illini. On Sundays, thanks to the renovations at Soldier Field, it's da Bears. Illinois has a new football capital for the short-term future.

NOT: Expansion

Some coaches supported the idea of adding a 12th member to the league, but commish Jim Delany said that the idea isn't even close to reality.

HOT: Hands

Of the players who finished in the top seven in receiving yards in 2001, five return for another season.

NOT: Big Ten National Champions

In the past three-plus decades, only one team -- Michigan in 1997 -- has even grabbed a share of the a national title.

 

We understand the higher standards for excellence at Penn State. We also understand that no one expected the spontaneous combustion of 2001. But we assume the Nittany Lions knew they'd have a 2002 Big Ten slate that includes road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State as the main course.

So why, pray tell, is Nebraska the appetizer? The Cornhuskers show up in Happy Valley in Week 2, and the results for Nittany Lions faithful could be hard to stomach. In other years, it's a BCS dream matchup. In this one, it threatens to undo all the rebuilding that's occurred since the early misery of 2001.


Michigan State coach Bobby Williams

The offensive talent is enormous, the defense is solid, the schedule is eminently favorable. It's time to produce, and how.

Indiana QB Tommy Jones

Mr. Jones, meet the ghost of Antwaan Randle El. Best of luck.

Purdue QB Kyle Orton

Stewarding this offense is a QB's dream, but as we heard elsewhere this summer, with great power comes great responsibility.

 
No question about the heavyweight opener to this campaign: Aug. 31, Ann Arbor, Mich., Washington at Michigan. Two preseason top 10 teams will duke it out on national television, and for the Wolverines, it could be the start of something good. With a visit to Notre Dame two weeks later, the non-conference schedule is enough to make the BCS computers reboot with over-excitement -- if the Wolverines can make it through unscathed, that is.
 
Purdue coach Joe Tiller admits that he hasn't exactly been subtle about the improvement he expects to see from his receiving corps, sending messages through the media and then including seven -- count 'em -- receivers in this year's recruiting haul. The message, it seems, has come in loud and clear. "There were a lot of missed opportunities," Boilermakers receiver Taylor Stubblefield said. "There were a lot of times where [Brandon] Hance delivered the ball well and we did not make the play." Don't think Ron Turner isn't salivating over the exposure his Illinois team will get by the Chicago Bears playing their home games at Memorial Stadium while Soldier Field gets renovated a few hundred miles north. "When they play Monday Night Football, the end zones will still say 'Illinois,'" Turner said. The death of Northwestern's Rashidi Wheeler during conditioning drills last August shook the Wildcats to the core. It also prevented Northwestern from preparing to be the kind of football team that wanted to defend a Big Ten title. "I'll be real direct: Coaching football and playing football was not the first and foremost thought in my mind last August," Wildcats coach Randy Walker said. "It is this August. And that feels better. I was trying to get 100 young men through a very difficult time and try and be a leader, try to set the right kind of example for them in a difficult time. We coached football and we played football, but it was not at the top of the list of priorities." The scuttle around Wisconsin focuses on the absence and eventual return of star receiver Lee Evans, but the Badgers' biggest concern should be the fact that just two defensive starters return from 2001, none in the front seven. Michigan State is promoting its 2002 season with posters of quarterback Jeff Smoker and receiver Charles Rogers that bear the slogan, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." "I like it," Rogers said. "I don't know who came up with it, but it's great."


 
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