August 14, 2009
Wrapping up Big Ten Week.
• Pas de deux. I struggled with each of these picks in pairs: Between Penn State and Ohio State at the top, Illinois and Iowa behind them, and so on through Michigan and Northwestern. There is no central insight there, only interesting that it worked out in such stratified tiers, and maybe that it provides some idea that I don't really see a difference between 1 and 2, 3 and 4, etc.
But beginning from the top: I surprised myself a little by picking the Lions ahead of Ohio State, a toss-up I've been mentally conceding to the Buckeyes for months. Certainly the consensus has broken for Ohio State, based I guess on Terrelle Pryor's pending domination of everything. I'm very much aboard the Pryor hype train, but whatever earth-stopping, physics-defying theatrics he delivers as a sophomore, I'm equally confident in the steady, veteran hand of Daryll Clark on the other side, which after all was pretty clearly the best in the conference last year. With Evan Royster, Clark also has a proven commodity who can ensure Clark won't be carrying the whole show by himself, a luxury Pryor may or may not have with untested Boom Herron and/or Brandon Saine. In general, I'd say the offenses are a wash.
And I'd say the same about the defenses, especially when you consider that Penn State's seven or eight "new" starters include Sean Lee, a unanimous All-American before an ACL injury last summer, and that three upperclassmen in the secondary have played plenty the last two years. The Lions' biggest concern, probably anywhere on the team, is replacing Aaron Maybin's impact in the pass rush, but with Lee and Navorro Bowman and OSU breaking in three new linebackers, I don't see any good reason has a notable advantage in the front seven. Or anywhere on the field, for that matter. On paper, they're totally deadlocked, which was pretty much the case on the field throughout their nailbiter last year in Columbus, which hinged on a totally random turnover.
So here is my tiebreaker: Penn State gets Ohio State at home. I'm not much of a believer in home field advantage, but that's the only separation I can come up with. These teams couldn't be more identical.
• Regressing to the Mean, Parts 1 and 2. I've gone to great lengths to demonstrate why I think Illinois is in position to make a dramatic leap back to the form that landed the Illini in the Rose Bowl in 2006, based mainly on the fact that the offense was significantly better on a down-by-down basis last year when not filling its trousers with sticks of dynamite that occasionally blew up in the form of turnovers. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn give Illinois the most explosive tandem in the conference, and it's a fact under Ron Zook that the Illini don't lose when they hang onto the ball -- they're 7-0 when winning the turnover margin the last three years, and 2-15 when losing it. If the former number can go up -- and if it's ever going to, with Juice hitting his senior year, now is the time -- Illinois has a big year ahead of it. Or a least a much better year than the last one.
The anti-Illinois is Michigan State, and I'll say straight out that I cannot fathom the relative preseason love for the Spartans: Major outlets have consistently pegged MSU third behind Ohio State and Penn State on the momentum of last year's 9-4, quasi-breakthrough. But other than the fact that it's shed the self-destructive tendencies of the John L. Smith years, I don't see anything about this team that impresses me, especially the fact that they were outgained on average last year, a characteristic usually associated with losing teams, or teams just keeping their head above water. The disparity was worse in Big Ten games, where opponents outgained the Spartans by about 35 yards per game and half-a-yard per play, numbers you'd expect to see reversed on a nine-game winner.
The simple question is, what are they good at? MSU finished in the bottom half of the conference last year in every major category: Rushing offense, passing offense, passing efficiency, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense. In their best categories, scoring defense and turnover margin, the Spartans finished fifth. They replace their starting quarterback and a 1,600-yard rusher and have consistently pulled in middle-of-the-road recruiting classes. What are the Spartan backers hanging their hat on here?
Why anyone would rank Michigan State ahead of Iowa, for example, which was statistically better than the Spartans last year at literally everything, finished with the same record, won its last four where MSU dropped its last two, and returns the same number of starters plus a solid starting quarterback, is unfathomable. I think the Spartans belong in the most mediocre possible position.
• Regressing to the Mean, Part 3. For an example of what can happen to a team that lives and dies by turnovers rather than down-to-down execution, see Minnesota: I pointed out last year at the height of the Gophers' stunning 7-1 start that they were winning in death-defying fashion, characterized by a +15 turnover margin, including a margin of at least +2 in five of seven wins. Minny subsequently failed to win the turnover margin in any of its last five games and lost all five by an average of three touchdowns.
The Gophers were a substantially better team last year than the horror show outfit in 2007, but still only beat one team (Florida Atlantic) that finished with a winning record, and that includes a win over Illinois despite being outgained by 238 yards. Minus the turnovers, that's the kind of game that swings for the Illini this year and against the Gophers.