Beyond the Box Score: Big Ten Edition (Part One)

We continue our looks at other conferences by moving to the north and east...to Big Ten country.

Same rules as apply as with my SEC Preview (Part One, Part Two). I'm calling this a "Beyond the Box Score" preview, but I'm going to make it as non-number friendly as possible.  I'm going to use some BTBS concepts to set up the team previews, but the rest will be more standard analysis.  And hopefully that will make you want to learn the BTBS concepts.  Or something like that.

Here's what we're going to do: I'm going to address each team's four main "Game-Changing Stats" emerging from their WinCorr's (I didn't figure anybody would care if I didn't list out the top 20 statistical categories as I've been doing recently...correct me if I'm wrong).  Then I'll look at their national '+' rankings and list their best and worst categories.

Ohio State (7-1)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Pass Defense.
  • 2nd Down Defense.
  • Overall Defense, Passing Downs.
  • Q2 Offense.

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Passing S&P+
#1: Defensive Non-Passing Down S&P+
#1: Defensive Passing Down S&P+
#1: Defensive 1st Down S&P+, Defensive 2nd Down S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#99: Offensive 1st Down Rushing S&P+
#95: Defensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#84: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#81: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#81: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+

They were #1 in 13 defensive categories overall.  They were to defense what Florida was to offense.  (It's important to remember this in light of the fact that, well, nobody really respects them a whole lot after the national title game problems.  This is a good team.)  The question is, if they do get back to the title game (and let's face it--the schedule screams 11-1), can they get over the hump?  The game-changing stats suggest that it's possible.

First of all, everyone but Larry Grant and Vernon Gholston return on the defensive side, and while Gholston's loss is a blow, his replacement Lawrence Wilson is experienced and was a starter last year until a broken leg ended his season.  That, combined with a more experienced secondary, means a continued stout pass defense is likely.  The question is, can they avoid the occasional breakdown?  Like other good defenses--LSU, Auburn--OSU had a bit of trouble with Passing Down breakdowns, but it wasn't a tremendously huge issue.  Lord knows they didn't lose to LSU because of the defense.

No, the trouble was on offense.  Todd Boeckman did his best Craig Krenzel impersonation for most of the season, and while it was good enough for 11 wins, he really didn't come through when it counted most.  He averaged just 182 yards passing while getting sacked 7 times in their two losses.  He will likely be complemented this fall by the guy everybody got tired of last winter, #1 high school recruit Terrelle Pryor.  Installing a run-oriented package for Pryor a few plays a game could help with some of the key rushing/redzone stats--a backfield of Pryor and Beanie Wells shouldn't have any problem with 1st or 3rd down rushing (though it might not help Q2/Q4 passing).  And that could make a huge difference in key moments.

Summary: If their defense remains as good as ever, and the running game improves...that leaves the passing game.  They struggled passing in the "talent" quarters (Q2/Q4), and Terrelle Pryor probably won't help in that regard.  It's up to Boeckman and his key receivers--Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline, Ray Small--to actually make some plays against good secondaries, and until they do, tOSU will still be a bit limited.

Verdict: Of course, they'll still win the Big Ten, so 'limited' is a relative term.  If I'm ranking teams based on who I think would beat whom, this team falls below Georgia, USC, OU, Florida, Missouri, and possibly LSU.  But we all know they'll be right there in the title hunt at the end of the season.  Accept it, live it, love it.

Illinois (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense, Non-Passing Downs/1st Downs (particularly line yards)
  • Passing Defense, close games
  • Defensive Success Rates, Non-Passing Downs
  • Q3 Offense

Top Ranks

#4: Offensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#8: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#8: Defensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#9: Offensive 2nd Down S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#110: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+
#100: Defensive 1st Down Passing S&P+
#91: Offensive Passing EqPts+
#90: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+

When you have a QB capable of making exciting, huge plays at any moment...and a QB who isn't going to thrive in pass-only situations, it makes sense that the most important thing to Illinois in '07 was success on 1st downs and in Non-Passing Downs.  That won't change in 2008, though success may be harder to come by without Rashard Mendenhall.  The pressure falls on junior Daniel Dufrene, RSFr Troy Pollard, freshman Mikel LeShoure, and whoever else, to produce for Juice, who will continue to be a relatively high-regarded QB as long as he stays as far away from Passing Downs as possible.  Also adding to the potential struggle is the fact that a couple stud starters on the O-Line--Martin O'Donnell and Akim Millington--are gone.

Meanwhile on defense, four of UI's five leading tacklers are gone.  At LB, Martez Wilson and a moved-to-MLB Brit Miller have a lot of potential, but replacing the production of J Leman and Antonio Steele (a combined 220 tackles, 13 for loss) is far from a given.  And having to replace both starting safeties is a scary thought as well.  One given for UI is that their D-Line should be quite strong.  Will Davis and Doug Pilcher make for one of the better pass rush tandems in the conference, and there's all sorts of quality depth at DT.  For Illinois to succeed, the DL is going to have to wreck shop to make the newcomers' jobs easier.

Summary: We all know about Ron Zook's recruiting successes, and we all know that the overall depth of talent and (particularly) athleticism in Champaign has improved significantly over the past couple of years.  Well...it's time for that depth to pay off.  Last year's success came in part by leaning on studs like Mendenhall, Leman, and O'Donnell.  They're gone.  The training wheels are off for Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, and other top-shelf recruits.  Illinois will go as far as those guys take them.

Verdict: The defense should be fine, so it's up to the offense.  Juice is exciting and limited.  Benn's freshman year was encouraging, but he'll need to take a Jeremy Maclin-like leap, and a RB threat will have to emerge, for UI to duplicate last year's success.  Illinois is on an upward trajectory, but '08 looks like a slight step backwards unless some threats emerge at talent positions.

Michigan (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Defense (particularly line yards).
  • 1st Down Defense.
  • Passing Offense (particularly on Non-Passing Downs.
  • Q2 Defense.

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#7: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#7: Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#9: Defensive 3rd Down S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#122: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+
#104: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#102: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#102: Offensive Q3 S&P+

Let's face it: there's really no point in analyzing these stats too closely, at least the offensive ones.  Mike Hart isn't walking through that door.  Chad Henne isn't walking through that door.  Ryan Mallett, Mario Manningham, Jake Long, Adrian Arrington, Adam Krause, et cetera.  All gone.  Michigan is unproven at QB, RB, WR and throughout the OL.  Oh yeah, and the offensive philosophy couldn't have made a bigger change in the offseason.  It's best if we just expect absolutely nothing from the UM (or as my Michigan State buddy calls them, scUM) offense and allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised.

So that leaves the defense.  After getting absolutely torched by Appalachian State and Oregon to start 2007 (520 yards passing, 491 yards rushing in those two games), the Wolverine defense came together and formed a pretty solid unit after that.  It helped that they didn't have to face another true spread offense, but either way...improvement is improvement.  Of course, their four leading tacklers are out the door; but this team is going to go only as far as their defense takes them.  And if you believe even a little bit in recruiting rankings, you have to figure the D will be at least solid.  Of their projected starters, only MLB Obi Ezeh was not particularly highly-touted...and Ezeh might be the best defender they have.

Summary: It's damn near impossible to figure out what Michigan is capable of in 2008, but a quick look at the schedule shows something interesting: there are two likely losses (@ Ohio State, I guess @ Penn State), three likely wins (Miami-OH, Toledo, Northwestern)...and seven likely tossups.  Honestly...you could put @PSU and NW'ern in the Tossup category as well if you wanted to.  If the offense is just competent and the defense solid, a 9-3 record in Rich Rodriguez' first year is quite feasible.  But if they're not?  Yikes.

Verdict: I'm likely going to chicken out and pick something in the 7-5 category (instead of being bold and saying 4-8 or 9-3), but this transition will be quite interesting to watch.

And for the record, West Virginia went from 7-5 to 3-8 in Rodriguez' first year.  Just sayin'.

Wisconsin (5-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense (particularly line yards)
  • Overall Offense, Non-Passing Downs
  • Overall Defense, Non-Passing Downs/1st Downs
  • Redzone Offense

Top Ranks

#4: Defensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#6: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#7: Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#8: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+
#8: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#111: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#100: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+
#100: Defensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#97: Defensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+

Get this--rushing yards and Non-Passing Downs were important to Wisconsin!  Who'da thunk it??  It hasn't taken Bret Bielema long to take Barry Alvarez' style and magnify it.  The Badgers have averaged about 25 more rushing yards per game in Bielema's first two years than they did in Alvarez' last two; they're giving up about 20 fewer rushing yards as well.  By record, they've improved slightly (21-5 for Bielema vs 19-6 for Alvarez), but the biggest change has simply been...they've become even more Wisconsiny.

(Huh...my spell checker didn't glow red for 'Wisconsiny'.  Is that really a word?)

Anyway, the question for 2008 is, can they keep it up?  Can they keep up this admirably boring style and continue winning at a 10-games-a-year clip? PJ Hill says yes.  Allan Evridge says...uhh...maybe.  Evridge wasn't good enough to beat out Dylan Meier for the Kansas State starting job a few years ago, and I'm having trouble believing that he's now the starting QB for a possible Top 10 team.  Lucky for him, UW QBs don't have to do much.  Plus, he'll be protected by a tremendously experienced line (good for both Evridge and the line yard totals)...but I still can't rank Wisconsin tremendously high with him behind center.

Summary: Their passing defense slipped quite a bit in 2007 (due in part to injuries to both CBs) but two experienced safeties and CB Allen Langford should get this unit to bounce back.  The front seven--led by DE Matt Shaughnessy and LB DeAndre Levy--should be stout.  The O-line will be great.  PJ Hill will continue to put up stout numbers.  Travis Beckum is everybody's All-American at TE.  This has the potential to be a great, super-Wisconsiny team...

Verdict: ...but their starting QB is Allen Evridge.  I can't get past that.  Out of principle, I can't even think about putting them in the Top 10 because of that.  #11 is the highest they can start 2008.

Penn State (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Defense, Points Per Play
  • Rushing Defense, 2nd Downs (line yards in particular)
  • 3rd Down Defense
  • Redzone Offense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Q2 S&P+
#1: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+
#2: Offensive Rushing EqPts+, Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#2: Defensive Rushing EqPts+, Defensive Non-Passing Down Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#96: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#85: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#82: Offensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#69: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+

If these '+' rankings have any predictive power, Penn State could be pretty damn good in 2008.  They were highly-ranked in just about every O-line or D-line based category, they were Top 10 overall in 25 categories, including a few in the Q2/Q4 "talent quarter" categories.  Their lowest rankings were in the #69-96 range, which isn't as low as other teams (outside of Columbus).  This was a solid team across th board in 2007, and they should be again in 2008.

I guess the main problem for the folks in the Nittany Valley during their second straight 9-win season was that there just wasn't much star power.  Anthony Morelli wasn't any better than I expect Allan Evridge to be, the WRs from their stud-filled 2005 recruiting class haven't been all that, and while Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster were good RBs, they weren't great RBs with loads of breakaway speed.  But hey...they still won 9 games.

The biggest question for 2008 is, when will Joe Paterno retire?  Kidding.  I don't give a crap about that.  My question is, can they continue their dominance against the run?  Opponents haven't averaged 3.0 yards per carry against PSU since 2004, but a) most recent "Linebacker U" representative Dan Conner is gone, and b) new "Linebacker U" standard-bearer Sean Lee tore his ACL and is gone for the season.  Lucky for them, their line yards totals were very, very good (Q4 aside), and the D-Line should be stout once again despite the dismissal of DT's Phil Taylor and Chris Baker.  Maurice Evans is a very good DE, and guys like Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu should be able to fill the DT void.

Summary: Penn State has averaged 9.7 wins per game over the past three seasons, and they've re-established their Penn State Identity--averaging 4.5-5.0 yards per carry while holding you to under 3.0 yards per carry.  Evan Royster should be ready for prime-time at RB, while Daryll Clark (or whoever starts at QB) won't be any worse than Anthony Morelli.  Line play will be stout, and the WRs will at least be marginally improved.  If anything holds the Nittany Lions back, it will be the fact that Defensive Rushing Points Per Play was a game-changing stat for them last year, suggesting that they sometimes gave up one big play too many.  That was with Dan Conner and Sean Lee.  Without their two tackling machines, you have to figure they might give up a couple more big plays.  That could be trouble.

Verdict: Despite the ongoing 'will he or won't he retire' controversy surrounding Joe Paterno, not to mention the ongoing disciplinary problems, I'm thinking Penn State is set up well for making a darkhorse Big Ten title run if tOSU slips (I don't think they will slip, but if they do...).  The rushing game will improve, the passing game won't get worse, and the pass defense won't get worse.  It ends up depending on how much the losses of Sean Lee and the DTs hurt Penn State, and right now I'm wagering on PSU responding well.

Iowa (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • 3rd Down Defense
  • Overall Offense, close games
  • Overall Defense, Points Per Play
  • Q2 Defense

Top Ranks

#4: Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#5: Defensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#6: Defensive 2nd Down Rushing S&P+
#6: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#6: Offensive Q3 Line Yards+

Bottom Ranks

#125: Offensive Q1 S&P+
#124: Offensive Passing-Down Passing S&P+
#124: Offensive Q1 Passing S&P+
#123: Offensive Passing Down S&P+

Iowa had possibly the least-threatening pass offense in the country in 2007.  I mean, it was bad.  Jake Christensen's TD-INT ratio (17-6) was quite impressive...because he seemed to throw every other pass out-of-bounds.  I guess if you're going to have a bad passing offense, it's good to at least not make many stupid mistakes, but...bad is bad.  Albert Young was a solid RB for the Hawkeyes, but he would have averaged much more than 4.7 yards per carry if opposing defenses had to pay any respect whatsoever to the passing game.

Now Young and backup Damian Sims are gone, replaced by JUCO RB Nate Guillory and '05-'06 contributor Shonn Greene.  They'll be running through holes produced by an improved O-line, and that's encouraging for Iowa.  But will the passing game improve?  Well, it literally can't get worse.  Mediocre Jake Christensen returns at QB, and receiving "threats" Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Andy Brodell (lost to injury after averaging only 7.4 yards per catch through four games, though his 2006 Alamo Bowl performance shows that he could possibly be a threat) do as well, but they have to find some explosiveness somewhere.  Trey Stross (also nagged by injuries) has potential--he was the only WR who averaged more than 13 yards per catch in '07, albeit over the course of only 16 catches.  Christensen will at least have a better bailout option in big TE Tony Moeaki, who was also lost to injury midway through the season.  In all, the Christensen will have just enough options available that we should able to tell if he stinks, or if it's just the options around him that stink.

Summary: Iowa's saving grace with such an atrocious offense was that, as usual, they had a stout defense.  That shouldn't change too much in '08.  There's been quite a bit of turnover in the front seven (they did lose 5 of their top 8 tacklers, including leading sacker Bryan Mattison), but the talent's there.  Mattison shouldn't be tremendously missed--Adrian Clayborn or Christian Ballard (both former Mizzou targets) are quite talented.  Overall, expect some potential growing pains, I guess, but by midseason they should be just fine.  The only problem is...if the defense is eventually no better than last year's (or maybe a smidge worse), and the offense is just a hair better...well...what's their ceiling, then?  7-5?  8-4?

Verdict: Iowa's not a very fun team to evaluate right now.  They've got some exciting talent on defense, and they'll stay in and/or win games because of it.  But with an unproven running game and the Most Conservative Quarterback of All-Time (MCQOAT) behind center, I think we're going to see a lot of "run on 1st, run on 2nd, throw ball away on 3rd" 3-and-outs.  When Kirk Ferentz was turning Iowa around, there was enough conservatism for everybody--but there were still players around to make big plays.  I'm not sure this team has that.

--

Coming tomorrow: Part Two.  I'll run through the rest of the teams, take a look at the schedules, and make some predictions.  You can't wait!!

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