CHICAGO - The 110th year of Big Ten football might end up being the best ever. That was the consensus from the head coaches during Day 1 of the league's annual media days on Monday.
"From top to bottom the Big Ten as good as it's ever been," Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. "I think it's the best league in America top to bottom. The problem is that it's too strong. You have to show up every week in this league."
Showing up against four specific problems appears to be the main fear for most of the league. Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue are all ranked in the top 15 of several preseason publications and each program is ranked in the top five of at least one publication.
Michigan, who returns 16 starters from a team that shared the Big Ten title with Iowa last season, was picked to win the league title in the preseason media poll. Ohio State, who returns 18 starters, was picked No. 2 and Iowa landed at No. 3 (the league only releases the top three).
Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz sounded as if he believed Purdue deserved to be in that third slot when he took his turn at the podium. The Boilermakers return a league-high 20 starters, including all 11 on defense, and with a favorable schedule that doesn't include Michigan or Ohio State some have pegged them as a dark horse to make a national title run.
"The other team that really should be mentioned with Michigan and Ohio State is Purdue," Ferentz said. "If you look how many starters are coming back and look at some of the close defeats they had last year the margin of them contending for league title was very thin. I think they have to be put right up there with Michigan and Ohio State."
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr believes the league's depth goes beyond the four programs who are earning the bulk of the preseason attention and awards.
"I have been involved in years where everyone expected one of four teams to win the league title and it ended up coming from the other seven," he said. "I think that could happen again."
Minnesota is expected to have one of the top rushing offenses in the nation again with the return of eight offensive starters, including running back Laurence Maroney and All-America center Greg Eslinger. Maroney is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
"We are very optimistic for the 2005 season, but I'm not exactly sure why because I think this conference is as tough as it's been in recent memory," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said.
Penn State appears set to rebound from a disappointing 4-7 record last season with the return of 18 starters and a nationally-ranked recruiting class.
There is also signs of hope for improvement at Illinois and Indiana where new coaches Ron Zook and Terry Hoeppner took over. Zook and his staff have already landed nine verbal commitments from the class of 2006, including three from a trio of four-star, in-state recruits.
"I really believe the Big Ten is going to be tremendously strong," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "I think that it's encouraging because we might have a chance to be the best in country."
NO FANS OF ROUND ROBIN: Every coach in the Big Ten was asked about the idea of having all 11 teams in the league face one another next year when the NCAA begins to allow teams to schedule 12 regular season games and they all took turns shooting it down. "That was proposed at our coaches meetings and that talk lasted about 30 seconds," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "Nobody wanted anything to do with that." Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said the cons outweighted the pros. "That may be the fairest and purest way to name a champion but there is more to it than that," Tressel said. "We sponsor 36 sports and I'm not sure our athletic department needs to have five league road games every year."
JOE'S A NO SHOW: Joe Paterno's wife reportedly broke her leg and he was not able to make it to the first half of the media days. The legendary coach is expected to speak to the media Tuesday.
OLD TEAMMATES TURN COACHING OPPONENTS: Walker and Zook played with one another during the 1970s for coach Bill Mallory. "I think coach Mallory had a lot to do with both of us wanting to do a lot with this game after our playing days," Walker said.
ALL EYES ON KIRSCH: With the entire defense returning and a number of offensive weapons in place once again, it's obvious that Purdue's biggest question mark is squarely on senior quarterback Brandon Kirsch. We feel that we lost two premier players in Taylor Stubblefield and Kyle Orton. We feel like we have Stubblefield replaced. It remains to be seen if we have Orton replaced," Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller said. "I hate to say all the pressure is on any one person, but with all the pieces of the puzzle in place we will go as the quarterback position goes. If we perform well at that position than I feel we will be a better team than last year." Kirsch saw action in six games last season and started twice.
SLIDE DREW, SLIDE!: Michigan State coach John L. Smith expects offense to be the team's strength again and that they will likely have to score a lot of points to be competitive. That means keeping junior quarterback Drew Stanton healthy will be a big priority and they plan on asking the mobile signal caller to run a little less. "We don't want to take Drew's escapability or his ability to make a good play out of bad play but at the same time we are going to try and be a little bit more limited and cognizant when we ask him to run than a year ago." Smith said. "He needs to put himself in harms way to win a game sometimes but he also needs to be aware that you don't need to that on certain plays too."
2 x 1,000 > 2,000: There has been a lot of talk this offseason about Maroney breaking the 2,000-rushing yard barrier. Maroney and Marion Barber III each ran for over 1,000 yards apiece the last two years and with Barber III gone he will be the feature back. But that doesn't mean that Maroney will get an extraordinary amount of carries. "We have a couple of guys waiting in the wings and we hope to come up with another year where two guys go for 1,000 apiece because that would help us more," Mason said. "I would like (Maroney) to get over 70 percent of the carries but we have no set number." Sophomores Amir Pinnix and Gary Russell will compete for the other carries.
MASON SEES FUTURE WITHOUT METRODOME: Mason firmly believes that the Gophers will be playing in a on-campus stadium someday, he's just not sure when. "There is a lot of stadium expansion and renovations taking place, but in our case it's a need not a want," Mason said. "It's imperative that we have it. We owe it to the Big Ten, we owe it to our people in Minnesota. I'm confident it will take place but it won't happen as quickly as I would like."
WOLVERINES BACKFIELD STACKED: Carr believes that he has never had a collection of backs to work with like he will this fall. The young and talented group includes 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Mike Hart, who rushed for 1,487 yards last season, sophomore Max Martin and highly-touted freshman Kevin Grady who joined the team during the spring semester. "This is as strong as we have been at tailback since I've been at Michigan," Carr said. Hart had an outstanding, exceptional year as true freshman. Max is probably the fastest of the group and had a great spring." Carr said that Grady will not be redshirted and will "play an important role" in his first college season.
QUARTERBACK ISSUES: Michigan and Ohio State may be expected to finish 1-2 in the league once again, but each will have to sort out some issues under center for that to happen. Neither program enters the preseason with a quarterback who has locked up a starting job. Chad Henne enters with the edge at Michigan after tying a school record as a freshman with 25 touchdown passes in 2004 but former starter Matt Gutierrez is back and healthy after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. Tressel said that junior Justin Zwick would get the nod if the Buckeyes had to play today. Junior Troy Smith, who showed the most promise down the stretch last season, is suspended for the season opener, and consequently Zwick and sophomore Todd Boeckman will get the bulk of snaps in preseason practice.