BIG TEN Defense could be dominant after offensive stars move on
No. 8 Michigan is the preseason pick to win the conference.
By RUSTY MILLER
Following a mass exodus of offensive stars and starting quarterbacks, defense could dominate the Big Ten this season.
Six of the league's top seven quarterbacks from last season, the top three rushers and the two leading receivers are all gone. On the other hand, many top-shelf defensive stars return.
"I always believe championship football starts on defense, and if we're going to make a run at this championship, we're going to have to play outstanding defense," said coach Lloyd Carr of No. 8 Michigan, the preseason pick to win the league title.
The Big Ten will also make big news off the field this season, becoming the first conference to use instant replay to review officials' calls.
The NCAA authorized the conference to use video replay to correct officiating mistakes on a one-year trial basis. Big Ten administrators are quick to point out that its replay system bears no resemblance to that of the NFL's.
The league's coaches say they have been assured the replay system won't cause the long delays that can make the NFL's system so tedious.
The NFL is where you'll find many of the Big Ten's best playmakers from last season.
Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans, Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker, Purdue wide receiver John Standeford, Michigan tailback Chris Perry and Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel all moved on to the NFL, leaving almost every team searching for a go-to guy when it has the ball.
Not to worry, Purdue coach Joe Tiller said.
"Sometimes what's more important than who went out the door is who went in," Tiller said.
Of course, that's easy for Tiller, who'll place his offense in the capable hands of quarterback Kyle Orton, one of the top passers in the country.
An experienced and talented quarterback is a luxury no other Big Ten contender has.
Michigan fans loved to criticize John Navarre, but adjusting to life without him might be one of the few things holding back the stacked Wolverines.
Matt Gutierrez, a junior with limited experience, is first in line to replace Navarre, ahead of Clayton Richard. And with Heisman finalist Perry gone, the tailback spot is also open in the Michigan backfield.
While the offense looks for new leaders, the defense is loaded with linebackers Lawrence Reid and Pierre Woods and defensive backs Ernest Shazor and Marlin Jackson.
Much like their archrivals to the north, the Buckeyes' biggest question lies behind center. Unproven sophomores Justin Zwick and Troy Smith will try to replace the heady and clutch Krenzel. Coach Jim Tressel may take an even more conservative approach -- if that's possible -- to protect his novice passers.
"We seem like a young group out there, but it's an exciting group that has a lot of talent and lot of passion to become a very good team," Tressel said.
Defense will again be No. 9 Ohio State's calling card with linebackers A.J. Hawk and Air Force transfer Anthony Schlegel, end Simon Fraser and cornerback Dustin Fox leading the way.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines meet Nov. 20 in Columbus and, as usual, expect the Big Ten championship and a spot in the Bowl Championship Series to be at stake.
No. 19 Iowa, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 25 Minnesota are the teams most likely to keep Ohio State and Michigan from claiming another Big Ten crown -- and all of them are breaking in new quarterbacks, too.
The Hawkeyes boast the stellar linebacking duo of Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway and the Badgers defense is anchored by defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne, who might be the league's best NFL prospect.
The Golden Gophers return most of a defense from a 10-win team that wasn't satisfied with its season.
"Last year we won 10 games and we're not that happy about it," coach Glen Mason said. "I know we'll be the best football team in the last seven or eight years at Minnesota."