somehow we're only 124th
I'm not sure if this good news or not, but the Big Ten Network and Time Warner are proposing a free preview in Ohio for the opening weekend of the season:
Time Warner Cable might show Ohio State's football opener against Youngstown State, even though the cable company hasn't reached an agreement with the Big Ten Network.
Time Warner, which serves two-thirds of wired homes in Ohio, including some 600,000 in central Ohio, said it would consider showing the Youngstown State game Sept. 1 and the Akron game Sept. 8 on one of its basic cable channels without a Big Ten Network deal.
"We would be happy to facilitate a 'freeview' of the live games on expanded basic cable," a Time Warner spokeswoman said.
Mark Silverman, president of the new network, didn't rule out the idea.
"I can't comment on that specific solution, but we're trying to get this (overall deal) done," he said. "I'm open to coming up with creative ways to solve this."
This would seem to be a step towards getting a deal done with Time Warner and an indication that negotiations are progressing more slowly than optimal, or a negotiating ploy that would strip the BTN of much of its leverage by putting the big-ticket Ohio State games on without committing to the network. I don't think the BTN would go for this without the framework for an agreement in place.
Oh snap. Mark Snyder also takes issue with the Forde article and Harbaugh's comments in the Free Press:
Forde stated that "only one junior has declared a major, according to the guide (in movement science). In 18 years of covering college athletics, I've never seen virtually an entire junior class without a major."
That's outdated information. That was from the spring media guide, before most juniors declare majors in the summer. In the fall media guide released last week, only two juniors (of 19) remained undeclared, and one is Antonio Bass, who has missed significant school time because of his leg injuries.
And to use a media guide as the basis for the research is a bit limiting and selective, given Forde has no idea why some majors are listed and some are not.
Would it be better to list a variety of majors, as Ohio State does, and rank in the 40th to 50th percentile of the APR? Or Michigan State, in the 30th to 40th of football programs?
There's more; worth a read.
Game times. ESPN's put out a press release announcing a bunch of television start times. Relevant notes:
- Oregon and ND are both national ABC games at 3:30.
- Illinois will be at night but the network its on is still undecided.
- The national telecasts of regional ABC games get a little more clarification:
Eight Saturday afternoon windows will feature innovative coverage in which ESPN or ESPN2 will regionalize two games on ABC to markets not receiving the telecast. For example, on September 1, ABC will televise Washington State at Wisconsin and Wake Forest at Boston College at 3:30 p.m. ET. ESPN will "reverse mirror" ABC's coverage, televising Washington State at Wisconsin in markets receiving Wake Forest at Boston College (on ABC) and Wake Forest at Boston College to the part of the country receiving Washington State at Wisconsin (on ABC).
Older than Greg Oden. Georgia Tech blog Ramblin' Racket thinks "the Rose Bowl's tradition is largely bogus" because the Big Ten-Pac 10 matchup was not instituted until 1947. Because a tradition that's only 60 years old is no tradition at all. Weird.
Like Shark Week but without the sharks. It's Big Ten week over at SMQB, and all posts are highly recommended. Nothing on Michigan yet, but a discussion of Tresselball in the post-Smith era and the possible fates of Penn State and Iowa in the middle of the pack.
Grate. Badger Tracker has an excellent post about this Bielema-Ikegwuonu thing that summarizes why I'm beginning to detest the guy:
And of course, it is unwise to to talk to the press about active legal proceedings. But there's a right way and a wrong way to address the situation. The wrong way is what Bielema did: to be antagonistic and standoffish to the press, lecturing them about what they can and cannot ask, acting like there is something to hide. What Bielema did goes way beyond the laudable goal of protecting a player. The right way is to prep Ikegwuonu before his media time, telling him, "You know the off-the-field stuff is going to come up. Tell them it's an unfortunate situation, it's not going to affect your preparation for the season, and you can't comment because the legal proceedings are ongoing."
To preempt questions about the incident and then threaten Ikegwuonu's departure if the coach's directive is broached is an annoying way to go about things. And maybe none of the offenses here require kids to be booted off the team, but felony trespass and burglary should warrant a meaningful suspension. I seriously doubt one's coming.
(No doubt there will be some glass houses accusations, but to compare this to Adrian Arrington's situation -- an unspecified violation of team rules believed to be pot possession -- or Carson Butler's -- he was acquitted -- is ridiculous. Ikegwuonu hasn't been convicted of anything yet, but if he is there should be some discipline from the University. I'm not holding my breath.)
Come on, you've got to be kidding me:
Two University of Michigan football players are facing trial next month, one of them for allegedly exposing himself to a female acquaintance inside Michigan Stadium.
Wide receiver LaTerryal Savoy was arraigned Wednesday on one count of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. His pretrial hearing was held today in Ann Arbor's 15th District Court, where a trial date was set for Sept. 21.
I... just keep your pants on. Meanwhile, we have a DUI:
Another player, linebacker Obi Ezeh, is charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty 93 days in jail and/or a $500 fine and/or 360 hours of community service.
Savoy, a redshirt sophomore, is at best the fourth wide receiver depending on how well the freshmen play, but Ezeh had been impressing many after a freshman year when he redshirted and had been moved to middle linebacker to compete for the starting job. Assuming Savoy hasn't made a Larry Harrison-esque habit of displaying his package, both are likely to receiver minor suspensions. The main on-field effect: Ezeh's chances of overtaking Johnny Thompson take a hit.
Best Ever. If you happen to know any Buckeyes well enough to be in the awkward position of exchanging gifts at holidays, I cannot recommend anything more strongly than this shirt:
There is also a Michigan State version. Tellingly, Michigan is omitted. Take that, Harbaugh!
Open house. The Big Ten Network's embarked on a barnstorming tour of the midwest; yesterday they stopped in at Michigan. There is an unrevealing story from the Free Press; more interesting is a Daily article from a few days ago with some increased detail on the negotiations:
In the next few weeks, Silverman thinks the network will sign with several cable and satellite distributors - Time Warner, Dish Network and Charter - but he won't count on Comcast.
"I need to consider Comcast as hoping, not expecting," Silverman said. "I will know more in the next couple of weeks about Comcast. That will be one that will go very close to the launching."
That's the first indication negotiations with any one provider are more strained than others and probably a good sign. If Time Warner, Dish, and Charter agree to carry it on basic, a price will be established and Comcast's holdout will seem untenable.
The Hoover Street Rag went on a field trip and reported back. The network remains uncompromising on expanded basic:
There are LOTS of negotiations currently going on, and again, deals on this kind of thing get done very late. Or as Mr. Silverman put it "very, very, very, very late." Mr. Silverman also noted that if he has his way, he would prefer not to be negotiating, but that is not the case. It is the position of the network that it should be broadly distributed on extended basic. Not on a sports tier, not on digital. It should be part of your 70 basic channels you get with your monthly cable bill. He went on to note that the Network is willing to negotiate on every single other point but they will not move on the extended basic part.
Also, HSR didn't get a parking ticket. Nice.
Oh, yeah, that guy. After a brief, intense burst of Beilein mania things here have settled back down into the status quo of mostly ignoring the thing that causes us pain. Beilein's recruiting hasn't been particularly newsworthy after the commitment of Syracuse center Ben Cronin -- he's focusing mostly on under-the-radar types, which distresses some -- but Nathan Fenno sheds some light on how things are going in an interview with our new savior:
Q: Would you like to add another player to the 2008 class?
Beilein: We would like to take an 08. And if we find two kids we like in 08, we'll take them. We're going to plan on seeing who we recruit first. If we don't get what we think is the right fit, then we'll move onto 09.
But we have some guys we think maybe the right fit. We might get three weeks into practice and say, 'Anthony Wright is this guy. Let's wait until 09.' We're gathering information.
Q: What sort of reponse have you recieved from recruits and their coaches?
Beilein: Two things I'm very happy with. No. 1, I think a lot of the young men have an appreciation for Michigan and the Big Ten, the University of Michigan, they know that name. The other thing is how many people have enjoyed watching West Virginia play the last three or four years.
We have an awful lot of high school coaches who have followed us. It's easier to get a recommendation from them to their player. Even though they may not know a lot about Michigan, they have seen West Virginia on television a great deal in the last couple years. There's a connection there I didn't didn't expect and I'm happy.
I expect another recruit no one is salivating over with to round out '08, then hope for some higher profile types once Beilein starts turning Michigan into a non-laughingstock.
Yorgen borgen flurgen forward. The Ann Arbor News profiles incoming Swede Carl Hagelin, a 6th round pick of the Rangers:
Hagelin captained Sodertalje SK in the J20 SuperElit Sodra, leading the league with 24 goals and 31 assists in 40 games. He sees himself as an offensive energy player who shouldn't take long to adjust from the 100-foot-wide Olympic-size ice sheets in Sweden to the 85-foot-wide rinks used mostly in North America.
"The rink is so much smaller, so it will be a different kind of game for me," Hagelin said. "Much faster, more physical game. I'm pretty fast and I think I can use my speed a lot."
There is also a profile on Shawn Hunwick, the new Mike O'Malley.
Etc.: We already knew this, but Bass is out this year. The article doesn't state it, but his return is highly improbable. Mallett will be "difficult to beat out" as the #2 QB; no redshirt coming. Maize 'n' Brew previews Notre Dame. Pickin' On The Big Ten ramps up a season preview.
Though the Fighting Illini's 2-9 2006 season was superficially as dismal as 2005's 2-10 debacle, a quick glance at the scorelines indicates that Ron Zook and company made progress towards credibility in the second year of the Redacted Era. Though both teams managed just one Big Ten win, the mewling babes of 2005 were outscored by preposterous margins: 61-14 against Michigan State, 35-7 against Iowa, 63-10 against Penn State, 40-2 (2!) against Ohio State, etc. etc. etc. All told, the average score of a 2005 conference game featuring Illinois was Illinois 12, Vague Competence Or Better 44. Illinois was a traveling bye week. (Naturally, Michigan had rotated off the schedule just in time for the Illini to hit their nadir.)
The 2006 team was prone to flail about as well, but if things didn't exactly get respectable, at least many of Illinois' games were still in doubt past, oh, the first quarter. In possession of a newly clueful defense finally old enough to see R-rated movies, Illinois was competitive. The average margin of a 2006 Big Ten game featuring the Illini was Illinois 22, Vague Competence 30. It's still not good to lose by an average of more than a touchdown, but when the alternative is losing by more than four, well...
This all would have been virtually unnoticed progress towards a Motor City Bowl berth if Ron Zook's recruiting mojo hadn't kicked in in a major way. Already sporting a wildly athletic and equally erratic freshman quarterback and patient VHT at tailback, Zook locked down a couple of recruits that could have gone anywhere they wanted. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn and linebacker/defensive end Martez Wilson both got the coveted fifth star from the recruiting services, then decided to don day-glo orange for four years. Some impressively large men backed that up; Rivals dispensed four stars to a couple offensive linemen and two defensive tackles. It was a class that wouldn't have looked out of place at Notre Dame, Michigan, or Ohio State*. Cue mild bout of media hysteria and a sudden piling onto the Zook Express, destination: the Insight Bowl.
Strangely, this seems a reasonable projection. Nineteen starters return for the second straight year. The Zookian talent influx probably a year or two away from serious contribution but a few players will slot in right away and radically upgrade things, Benn foremost among them. Many of Illinois' woes last year are unlikely to repeat, especially the comically awful punting and hugely negative turnover margin. SMQB, linked above, calls Illinois "a veritable perfect storm of upward mobility," and it's true. Illinois is movin' on up. The only question is how much.
*(It wouldn't have looked good or anything -- the back end was thick with two-stars and marginal three stars -- but it probably wouldn't have caused fans to pile into the streets bearing "The End Is Near" sandwich boards. Except for those fans that always do that.)
Jekyl: the 10th-best rushing game in the nation. Hyde: the 105th best passing game, and the absolutely positively worst in the whole country in efficiency terms. Worse than Buffalo. Worse than Temple. Worse than FIU. Worse than any school you care to name. Freshman Juice Williams and veteran Tim Brasic took turns scarring what remains of the Illinois fanbase by flinging wounded ducks skyward or, more likely, directly into the turf. Wide receivers played hide and seek behind defensive backs, emerging only to blink a couple times in the sun, drop a pass or two, and announce six more weeks of Illini football winter. The most commonly called play appeared to be Chicken With Its Head Cut Off. Things were bad. They were not good.
The net was more Hyde than Jekyl, as the Illini finished 88th in scoring offense despite a decent performance in total yardage. Sadly for Illini fans, this actually represented an uptick from 2005.
Rating: 2. One person who had no role whatsoever in returning the "fight" to the -Ing Illini: starting quarterback Isaiah "Juice" Williams. Yes, you expect true freshmen ripped from high school and deposited directly onto the playing field to struggle. But no, you do not expect them to complete under 40% of their passes and throw as many interceptions as they do touchdowns. Williams was the worst Big Ten quarterback in a decade. He has many excuses for this -- bad wide receivers, questionable offensive line, true freshman thing -- but not enough. He must improve radically for the Illini to approach respectability.
The key question facing the Illini this season: will he? Many are projecting a quantum leap; I am skeptical. Quarterbacks who start from day one are rare in college football, but there have been a couple that provide some indication of their average learning curves. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn was awful for the bulk of two years before a breakout junior season. Meanwhile, a sophomore Chad Henne's numbers actually regressed after a fine freshman year before his own junior year breakout. There are a lot of secondary factors here -- the introduction of Charlie Weis' ineffable genius, Michigan's injury-wracked and Braylon-free 2005 -- but I watched a lot of both quarterbacks and the overall impression they left is that they weren't actually any better in their second year than they were in the first. Contrast that to the guy Illinois fans are probably hoping Williams turns into, Troy Smith, who was a disaster in his first year as a starter (until the Michigan game, yes, now let us never speak of this again) before exploding as.... a junior. A redshirt one, even.
All these quarterbacks have the following in common:
- It took them two or three years in college before they were any good.
- None of them had anywhere near as far to go as Williams.
Anyone who watched Juice a year ago found him fascinatingly awful; the best Illinois fans should reasonably hope for this year is boringly bad. A completion percentage north of 50 would be a small victory. His legs will remain his greatest asset, and he'll still handcuff the Illini offense.
Tailback & Fullback
Rating: 4. There are going to be a lot of kids on this team that make you shake your head and wonder "why the hell are you at Illinois?" but jun
ior Rashard Mendenhall is the only one who volunteered for the Illini experience without being entranced by Ron Zook and his mysterious charm. His recruitment may be the most inexplicable of them all. An OMG shirtless sort of high schooler, Mendenhall signed up to get his butt kicked on two awful teams and did so fully cognizant that the only position on the field at which Illinois had a modicum of talent was the one he happened to play. So he didn't even get to start on either of Illinois' two-win wonders. That was Pierre Thomas' job. (The Illini also featured scatback EB Halsey both years, though more heavily in '05 than '06. Mendenhall emerged as the second back on the depth chart last year.) Both Thomas and Halsey are gone. It's Mendenhall's job.
And... um... this could be a situation in which Illinois does not rebuild, but reloads? Mendenhall did not see the ball with much frequency as either freshman or sophomore, but his 30 extra carries last year turned themselves into 422 extra yards. Mendenhall's YPC leapt from a respectable 4.5 to a frightening 8.2. You are probably suspicious of things like Eastern Illinois and Ohio inflating totals, but this line...
...did not come against The Easterling Illini or the Bobcats or even Northwestern (5 for 113!) but Penn Frickin' State, possessors of last year's #7 rush defense and a stingy group indeed. And that was a close game throughout thanks to the comic stylings of Anthony Morelli; no garbage time this. Though I asserted Penn State's run defense to be way overrated in the PSU preview, that's an impressive total against anyone with a pulse.
There are other, less salutary lines:
Those are against Wisconsin and Ohio State, respectively, and you can mentally insert something like eight carries for six yards if you desire to hypothesize a 2006 Michigan-Illinois contest.
So Mendenhall is not a miracle worker but, as a highly touted recruit who has posted encouraging numbers in the face of stiff odds (he plays for Illinois!) and shown the ability to be a breakaway threat in college, he is more likely than any other new starter in the conference to be an immediate star. The one complicating factor is Williams, who will steal carries, threaten no secondaries, and invite opponents to crash into the box, receiver wrested from the Irish or no.
Wide Receiver & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. When your leading receiver has 30 catches for 403 yards and the NCAA's official website claims his name to be "Klye" Hudson, you know you have issues. Some of Williams' freshman struggles lie at the feet of this unit, which couldn't get open short or long. And even when they did it didn't always matter. Between them the Illinois receivers were charged with 46 drops a year ago, seriously denting Williams' already paltry completion percentage.
Like much about Illinois the past two years, youth played a major role in incompetence. Hudson was a sophomore last year, second-leading receiver Jacob Willis a JUCO who had never seen I-A playing time, tight end Jeff Cumberland a true freshman. Jody Ellis and Derrick McPhearson, who caught nineteen balls between them, were sophomores. Only Jajuan Warren was an upperclassmen. That experience figures to pay off, although Ellis and McPhearson were booted for an audacious heist on Fake St. Patrick's Day, -- Illinois is weird -- which dampers things a bit.
But nevermind all that. While the returners will be marginally better, it's all about the Benn, um, -jamins. [note to self: please revise this horrible sentence, then slap self.] Freshman Arrelious "Regis" Benn -- the new blood at Illinois digs its nicknames -- was a DC-area uber-recruit and Notre Dame lock a year ago at this time; now he's the most inexplicable piece of Ron Zook's inexplicably monster 2007 recruiting class and #1 on the depth chart with a bullet. Benn enrolled early and tantalized 10,000 Illini fans by catching five passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Here we are forced to perform another heuristic calculus like the one we attempted for Williams above. We know freshman wide receivers, no matter how highly touted, are infrequently immediate stars on the college level. Ted Ginn, Mario Manningham and Derrick Williams were useful players as freshmen, but not stars. (Before you go "yes, but... Illinois!", none of those guys had significant competition in front of them on the depth chart except maybe Manningham if you have a soft spot for Steve Breaston.) Anyone who's into fantasy football can tell you that you avoid NFL wideouts until their third year. So even if Benn is going to end up an NFL first-rounder, indications are his first year will be somewhat underwhelming, especially because his quarterback can't be relied upon.
Survey says: slightly better, but wait 'till next year.
Rating: 2. Three starters return to a line that's hard to read from statistics alone. Do you go with the outstanding rush offense (10th) or the hideous pass protection (91st in sacks allowed)? The Human Outlier at quarterback further complicates things. You can't credit the line with all of Williams' rushing yards, since many of them came from unplanned scrambles, but the VY-esque zone read was a major part of the Illinois offense a year ago, so they get some of them. It's hard to blame them for the huge number of sacks conceded for the same reason. So, as per usual with offensive lines, we're left to guess.
The good: three returning starters and one of them is an Oklahoma transfer. The bad: the rest of the starters were leftovers who came aboard during the waning years pre-Zook and had little guru support when they came in. Normally you would discard such things once the guys have seen the field, but no Illinois lineman got so much as an honorable mention from the conference coaches when they were asked to vote on All Big Ten teams. Akim Millington, the OU transfer, is bulky for a left tackle and not much of a pass protector, probably better suited for right tackle but forced into an uncomfortable position because of need. Meanwhile, last year's starter at right tackle, Charles Myles, is out for the year with an injury. The Illinois Scout site gives a frank evaluation of the talent:
I'm a little concerned about this group, frankly. [see?UI's OL coach -ed] told me not to be, but it just takes so long to build the line. I think the young guys â€“ Palmer, Asamoah, others, will be very good in time. But it's tough to play young guys up front. Among the veterans, McDonald is solid, not great, but reliable. They are hoping O'Donnell is that as well. And I just don't know what to make of Millington because he is always limping around. This group will take some mixing and matching from Woolford, who is a very good coach, to be all they can be. It will be interesting.
Ah, yes, the old Chinese curse: "May you live with interesting lines."
It was revival time for 2005's bar-none worst defense in the country.
You can argue that last year's Illinois defense was over- or under-rated by the numbers depending on your mood. The "over" case: opposing offenses didn't need to do anything risky because Williams couldn't throw once opponents got ahead -- and they all got ahead -- and could shut up shop with narrow leads. Witness Ohio State's game against the Illini: up 17-3, Jim Tressel decided to cease throwing almost entirely. Illinois was allowed to tee off on the run game and got a lot of stuffs. See below for a more thorough exploration of this concept. Opponents just didn't bother to throw the ball versus Illinois last year.
The "under" case: the Illinois defense was put in horrible situations time and again by turnovers -- Illinois was 117th of 119 in turnover margin, providing a prodigious 35 giveaways to shocked, grateful opponents -- and disastrous punting (also 117th in the country). They were much better than their 91st-ranked scoring defense implies.
Both these things are true. On pure yardage, Illinois was overrated; on pure scoring, underrated. They were probably a mediocre defense a year ago. This is great for the Illini. Mediocre is just fine when you have no guru-approved talent, you're so young you return nine starters to your D, and you bring in freaky stud freaks like Martez Wilson.
Rating: 3. There aren't a lot of returning sacks on the Illinois defense (82nd, last year), but that has something to do with a major skew in opponent's run-pass distribution. The rush defense was better than the mediocre 51st the raw numbers indicate since opponents ran all the time against the Illini. The main difference between their rush defense and, say, #15 Ohio State was no so much the average yards per carry (3.3 for each) but the number of rushes attempted: a mere 384 in 13 games against the Buckeyes and a whopping 462 in 12 against Illinois. Meanwhile, opponents tried just 335 passes against the Illini. Naturally, sack totals were depressed.
Star defensive tackle Chris Norwell quietly had an excellent season in the shadow of Branch, Pitcock, Alford, et al, acquiring 12.5 TFLs and 5 sacks to go with 42 tackles. A quick check of his game by game performance shows sacks against Wisconsin and Ohio State and remarkably consistent TFL production (usually from .5 to 1.5 every game) across the board; he was not fattening up on the weak. With the aforementioned headliners gone, Norwell will vie with Michigan's Terrance Taylor and Wisconsin's Nick Hayden for the title of best defensive tackle in the Big Ten.
Junior Nick Lindquist is a former walk-on whose numbers were not as impressive (two sacks, five TFL, 33 tackles) but was a starter on a pretty decent run defense and can't be dismissed out of hand. His job will come under serious heat from the two blue-chip defensive tackle recruits coming in this year. It's DeAngelo McCray that most expect to press most heavily, but local product Josh Brent picked the Illini over Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan; with no depth past the starters both figure to see heavy rotation.
End is deeper but lacks the obvious star. Junior Derek Walker had 5.5 sacks a year ago, but once midseason rolled around his production fell off a cliff. His final sack came against Indiana, and in the last four games of the year his tackle count looks like this: 1, 1, 2, 1. He was but a redshirt sophomore, so improvement is likely. I am less bullish on him than I would be if his sacks had come against teams better than Syracuse, Indiana, Michigan State, and Eastern Illinois.
Everyone admits that the other starter, sophomore Doug Pilcher, is a limited ceiling guy. Zook:
Pilcher, I don't know how he does it, but he makes plays.
Does he? Well, not really, with no sacks and only 24 tackles a year ago. (He did have 6.5 TFL.) As a redshirt freshman that lack of production is excusable, but Pilcher is in the same situation and Lindquist. His job will come under fire from more highly touted kids, among them sophomore Antonio James and redshirt freshman Jerry Brown. Chances are the pass rush from this unit will be spotty.
Rating: 4. All three starters return to a unit that made a quick turnaround a year ago. MGoBlog promises to overrate this unit as long as it features J Leman, the tackling machine with the Joe Dirt haircut, American flag tie, and it's-an-abbreviation-no-it-isn't first name. You'll just have to live with it. Every year the conference features some who-dat undersized white guy who plays middle linebacker on a crappy team and racks up tackle after tackle after tackle because his defense can't get off the field and their offense can't stay on it; last year it was Leman. The difference between Leman and your typical Kyle Killion type is that Leman's defense was somewhere between good and great against the run. His numbers can't be dismissed as a knack for making tackles eight yards downfield. So we must take them for what they are: ridiculous. Leman racked up 152 tackles, 19 of these for loss and four of them sacks, along with two forced fumbles and four pass breakups. If he had played for old money like Penn State or Ohio State, he's the guy who would have been touring the awards circuit, showing off his American flag tie. The difference is he might well have deserved the trophies bestowed upon James Laurinaitis.
On the weakside, JUCO transfer Antonio Steele is blessed with a kickass name and did come second to Leman's tackle count with 85, five of those for loss. This is probably where Martez Wilson will be deployed, as well. The other superstar recruit from Illinois' 2007 recruiting class comes in around 230 pounds and could end up at either end or linebacker or, more likely, both. Expect him to see a lot of time as a designated pass rusher as he gets adjusted to college life. Lower-level tackles won't be able to handle his totally shirtless athleticism.
There might be an issue on the strongside. Starter Brit Miller's stats were weak. He had just 43 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and a couple probably-fortunate interceptions as the full time starter on the strong side. Sure, there weren't that many left to go around what with Leman and Steele tackling everyone from Antonio Pittman to the cheerleaders, but any sort of normal play distribution should put Miller in position to make a lot more tackles. Theories about a lack of tackles stemming from his removal in the nickel don't fly given the heavy run bias of the opposition. (Is it possible this is a normal thing for SLBs? Shawn Crable only had 37 tackles his own self, though 11 were for loss and 6 wer
Rating: 3. Illinois' jump in pass efficiency defense looks stunning and sustainable (three starters return), but I can't help but glance over the results and be less impressed than I feel I should be. There weren't all that many good quarterbacks in the Big Ten and Illinois missed two of them with Chad Henne and Brian Cupito (laugh if you must, but Cupito was a senior with a ton of experience and several passable targets; the Gophers finished a respectable 38th in passing efficiency) off the schedule. A third, Troy Smith, was directed to hand off for much of the game. Out of conference there was a I-AA foe, Rutgers (69th in passer efficiency), Syracuse (89th), and Ohio (an Illinois-esque 111th). You can make a case that even a bad secondary would have found itself with Paris Hilton numbers -- pretty but shallow -- when faced with that caliber of opposition. Though we can assume the secondary was not awful, it may not have proven itself excellent, either.
In any case, safety is taken care of. Free safety Justin Harrison is will be a four-year starter this fall. Strong safety Kevin Mitchell is entering his third season as a starter. Both are seniors who endured the bloody 2005 season; if anyone in the conference can be called "battle tested" it is these fellows, who have seen more artillery come their way than Blitz-era London. One assumes there will be few errors. The flip side: Harrison and Mitchell have five interceptions and 13 TFLs between them in many, many games. Big plays will have to come from elsewhere.
Corner has one emerging star and then question marks. Vontae Davis was a middling recruit from DC with offers from Virginia, Michigan State, and Maryland who walked right into a starting job last year and performed admirably, earning Freshman All-American honors and picking up a few All Big Ten votes along the way. Though the above-expressed caveats about level of competition apply, indicators are that Davis is for real. Few true freshmen starters preside over a major upturn in the fortunes of their secondary; fewer still did when they got little support from the pass rush.
Past Davis, however, there is uncertainty. The departed Alan Ball was drafted in the seventh round. Travon Bellamy, the nickelback a year ago, is projected to move into the starting lineup in his absence. He did have a couple interceptions in limited time a year ago. Bellamy was a middling three star in 2006 with only one other offer, that from North Carolina, but has outperformed his ranking to date. Maybe he'll be okay; chances are there will be growing pains.
Rating: 3. Kicker Jason Reda was very good a year ago, going 15 for 19. On the other hand, punter Kyle Yelton was a disaster, getting two fewer yards than the average Ross Ryan punt but still setting up opponents for 6-7 yards per return. The net result was the nation's third worst net punting average. With redshirt freshman Anthony Santella booming Zoltan-worthy 51 and 59 yard punts in the spring game, if Yelton wants to see the field again he's advised to buy a knife and get some pointers from Mitch Cozad (kidding! stabbing your way to the field is never a good idea, kids! -ed).
The return game was a major sore spot a year ago. Illinois was 111th in punt returns and 72nd in kick returns.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2006||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|-1.25(117th)||10||10||1.75 (82nd)||14||21||2.5 (91st)|
Illinois is a holy lock to improve this radically. Their -11 fumble margin is a huge outlier that can be explained somewhat by their crappy sack numbers on both sides of the ball, but a more experienced Williams will spend less time flailing aimlessly in the pocket and nine starters returning on defense suggests the sack numbers will improve. This should slide towards zero. Improved quarterback experience would normally mean a better INT ratio, but Illinois is in a really weird situation with Williams. Illinois ran the ball 57% of the time last year largely because of his incompetence; this year they'll try to bring that number down. Attempts will go up, Williams will still probably be bad at football, and interceptions are likely to remain high.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
None. Hell, there are hardly any new starters on this team at all.
Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview
He couldn't hit the ocean if he was thrown out of the boat, he was an inconsistent runner who took way too many sacks, and he appeared lost at times as a true freshman, but Isiah "Juice" Williams is one of the Big Ten's rising stars and one of the nation's most dangerous all-around threats.
I love these constructions: "This guy sucks... but he's dangerous!" All that's missing is the requisite "if he gets some consistency he'll be scary." The only things Williams was dangerous to last year were his own fans.
This is freshman defensive tackle Deangelo McCray at his prom, at which McCray had a lot more fun than I did at mine. Please note the Illinios vest and bowtie.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
No matter how much everything goes right for the Illini, Williams is going to be an anchor around their necks. You don't complete 37% of your passes and then become a good quarterback overnight. Don'
t care he can run. Don't care he was a true freshman. Don't care about receivers. Watched him. Can't throw or read coverages... yet. Improvement is obviously forthcoming but probably not so fast and so thorough as to vault Illinois amongst the contenders. I believe in Menendhall and this Benn kid is a major upgrade, so a much better Williams will get Illinois to pretty good, at which point they'll scare the pants off a couple of conference heavyweights and maybe beat one or two. If all goes exactly right, January is a possibility. 9-3.
Benn's relevance is nigh zero because Williams can't do anything except be a tall Reggie Ball. He manages to improve a little bit, but not much, and the offense is about what it was last year with a long touchdown from Benn here and there and maybe a third down conversion from Williams he wouldn't have made a year ago. The defense remains tough-ish, but still can't find a pass rush. The pass efficiency defense numbers prove somewhat illusory because of a friendly schedule last year; youth at corner hurts.
Still... even the most critical eye leveled at this year's Illini can't predict a repeat of last year. Nine starters return on both sides of the ball; last year's rush defense was for real; Mendenhall and Benn are skill position players anyone would like to have. Illinois wasn't really a 2-10 team last year, nor will they be this year. 4-8 is the bottom.
No. This is your answer to "will this year see a great Illinois revival?" Williams can improve radically and still submarine his team's chance of having a good offense. My money is on moderate improvement that gets him up to the fourth-worst quarterback in the league. Meanwhile the offensive line is a "work in progress," which means "probably not any good." Williams can mitigate that some with his mobility, but not that much. Benn and a more experienced set of wide receivers will help matters, but Illinois has miles to go before they're even average on offense.
It will be tough to run against J Leman and the rest of the Illinois front seven, but the jury is still out on the pass defense. It was hardly tested a year ago, as teams preferred to run into the maw of the line and wait for Williams to implode. The defensive ends don't look likely to provide much in the way of pass rush, though Martez Wilson will help matters here, and the cornerbacks are still green: no upperclassmen, let alone seniors. They might turn out to be stars... but they'll probably take a step back this year as the level of competition ratchets up a notch.
|9/1||Missouri (@ STL)||Probable loss|
|9/8||Western Illinois||Functional DNP|
|10/27||@ Ball State||Functional DNP|
|9/22||@ Indiana||Probable win|
|9/29||Penn State||Probable loss|
|11/10||@ Ohio State||Probable loss|
|Absent:||Purdue, Michigan State|
An odd configuration, this, with almost no games that figure to be even-steven before the snap of the ball. I guess this is the unconscious expression of my Illinois expectations: they should be a step above the conference dregs for the first time since the Kittner era, but they don't have the talent (or at least their talent doesn't quite have the experience) to make them a major threat. In the end it looks like 6-6 and a Motor City berth to me. I do tentatively sign on the Zook bandwagon starting in '08, though.
Good. Bad. He's the guy with the gun. Yes, Autumn Thunder is carving itself a niche in the Michigan blogosphere, and how:
Eagle-eyed! SI, busy cutting writers left and right, has replaced their traditional team preview with those provided by Athlon. And by God, Athlon is on top of things:
The secondary replace All-America cornerback Leon Hall, but veteran Morgan Trent is ready to step up and assume the role as Michigan's next great lock-down corner.
Hey, we all wish the last two games of 2006 didn't happen. Only Athlon dares to make it true. But my favorite part is the "outlook":
The Wolverines' season will likely come down to mid-November, when they battle Wisconsin in Madison before hosting Ohio State.
"My preference would be if we could schedule a home game at Paul Brown Stadium every year, we would do it," said UC athletic director Mike Thomas. "But it has to be against the right opponent."
Thomas said he has had discussions with Notre Dame, Tennessee and Michigan about playing at Paul Brown.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that that's going to happen," Thomas said, "but that ball is in their court."
Probably not going to happen without a two-for-one, which Cinci is trying to avoid:
"Two-for-ones are not our first option, obviously," Kelly said. "We want the one-for-one situation. We think it's befitting a BCS program and one that's in the Big East. We wanted a top-20, nationally recognizable program. Oklahoma, when you think about championships, they would be at the top of the list."
The Oklahoma series they lined up -- another one of these interesting nonconference games brokered by ESPN -- is a home-and-home. Meanwhile, Utah is geeked about the 2008 game. An interesting note or two:
Utah will receive a guarantee of $800,000, up from the $500,000 it received in 2002 to play at Michigan.
Michigan's stadium seats 107,501 fans, making it the largest college-owned stadium in the country. The game will be part of an ABC-ESPN national doubleheader.
National TV, much like the Vandy game, is the minor reward for scheduling someone marginally more interesting than your average MAC snackycake. So at least there's that. Also, I love that the prices these teams are charging continues to increase. Hopefully it gets to the point where it's economically preferable to play actual opponents.
Pictures and such. Media day was, um, Monday? Yesterday? Whatever. It happened. So did this:
File away for future reference. Interesting survey of current D-I players from SI.com. Bits of note:
3. Which coach besides your own would you most like to play for?
Pete Carroll, USC: 28.6%
Urban Meyer, Florida: 10.9%
Joe Paterno, Penn State: 10.2%
Bobby Bowden, Florida State: 8.4%
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: 6.7%
Jeff Tedford, Cal: 3.4%
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: 2.5%
Mack Brown, Texas: 2.5%
Nick Saban, Alabama: 2.5%
Others receiving votes: 19.3%
Declined to respond: 5.0%
Notes: Twenty of the 34 players who voted for Carroll also picked USC to win the national championship... Carroll received a vote from at least one player in every conference except for the Sun Belt... Despite his team's success of late, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel received only two votes... Notre Dame's Charlie Weis received two votes and Michigan's Lloyd Carr received one... Eight of the 13 votes Meyer received were from players from non-BCS schools... Despite the parameters of the question, one MAC player voted for the deceased Bo Schembechler and one C-USA player voted for former Miami coach Larry Coker, insisting he would be a head coach again soon.
Seriously... JoePa and Bowden? Really? I guess past accomplishments trump the whole eats-via-straw-or-unholy-ritual thing. Also: someone find that MAC player and give him a medal.
4. Would you like to see college football institute a playoff?
Just in case you get in a battle with a BCS advocate who invokes Save The Children.
5. How many hours per week do you spend on football-related activities?
50 or more: 15.1%
Notes: Players were asked to estimate their hours during the football season... Ninety-seven of the 119 players polled, or 81.5 percent, estimated that they spent at least 30 hours per week... Excluding two extreme outliers (512 hours and 12 hours), the average figure was 38.9... The average for BCS schools was slightly higher than their non-BCS counterparts, with BCS players averaging 39.4 and non-BCS averaging 38.4. ... A small handful of players mentioned their obligation to go to class as part of their "football-related" activities.
Quotable: Despite the anonymity granted by this survey, several players were worried about admitting to practicing more than 20 hours per week. Said one player, "What's the NCAA rule, 20? All right, I better say that." ... A Big 12 player, who estimated he spent between 40 and 50 hours per week on football-related activities during the season, lamented the long hours of a college football player: "Playing football at any major university is a lifestyle. I always make sure I'm eating right. I always make sure to get extra work in on my own. I go to class and the rest of the time I'm doing football stuff."
For the record, 7 times 24 is
184 168 (some record), so the wag above with his 512 hours was spending about three weeks every week playing football. Anyway: football is a full-time job.
8. Do you read message boards or blogs where fans discuss your team?
Quotable: "I read it if I want to have a good laugh," said one Big 12 player. "Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that they're showing their opinions, but at the end of the day, they don't know what's going on." ... Most players who responded "no" said the people who write on message boards or blogs do not know what they're talking about. Said one MAC player: "My grandma could guess the same thing."
Thanks, SI, for conflating two totally different things into one. I would remind you that you employ Stuart Mandel and therefore should be wary of quoting people saying things like "I read it if I want to have a good laugh."
. Dan Wetzel is usually on point, but, um....
Southern California, Louisiana State, Florida and Texas are ranked ahead of Michigan in the preseason coaches' poll. And for all anyone knows, each is a vastly superior team to the Wolverines.
But none have the schedule set up like Michigan. Among BCS teams, Texas might be close, but only West Virginia (ranked sixth) could argue they have a better path to an unbeaten season â€“ and a likely berth in the title game in New Orleans.
I disagree; circle gets the square. I know Oregon wasn't gangbusters last season and Notre Dame projects to suck hard, but those are two actual losable nonconference games. Texas' nonconference killers: Arkansas State, Central Florida, TCU, and Rice. Then you've got the Big 12, which has been a vastly top-heavy conference since KSU, CU, and Nebraska either imploded or took a significant step back. I don't think OU (neutral site), A&M (road), Nebraska (home) and KSU (home) is anywhere near OSU, Wisconsin (road), Penn State (home), and Purdue (home). Texas' schedule is nummy cake this year.
Hi. This is weird for me, as it is for you, I'm sure, but Bill Connors, who you may remember from such quotes as...
"It's a single-digit percentage who view [the BTN] as an absolute must-have. That's why the best landing place is on a sports tier."
"In our mind, all we care about is getting content that customers want, at the right price. They cannot say that 100 percent of customers want to be forced to watch the Big Ten Network."
...or someone at Comcast saw the Silverman interview and wanted to give their side of the story. So there was a second unexpected conversation with an oft-agitated executive during which I typed frantically.
A clarification is in order here: I don't know if you would really call this "journalism." These interviews didn't seem like standard ask-response-ask thing where the most cutting thing you can do is get in a really pertinent followup. They were conversations. Dialogues, if you will. And the resulting piece here is fair (I hope) but not neutral. I have opinions on these things and would like to offer them to you. As for sides... there are three sides in this conflict: The Big Ten, Comcast, and us. I'm with us. A general disclaimer then: I would like to get the Big Ten Network, personally, and get it on basic cable. I also wouldn't mind if it cost $1.10. I wouldn't mind if it cost more than ESPN, because the benefit to the athletic departments would mostly be coming out of the pockets of people who aren't me. So that's where I'm coming from.
SO THE BIG CONFLICT HERE is over placement and price. Mark Silverman, president of the Big Ten Network, said that if cable carriers in the footprint did not put the Big Ten Network in their expanded basic pacakge, they wouldn't be permitted to carry the channel at all, and that the cable networks had been unresponsive about that placement. Therefore there was hardly anything to discuss. Connors confirmed this position, albeit with a quaifier:
"Clearly, that's their public position on this. So it's been hard to make any progress in negotiations. They've been pretty adamant."
"Public": the qualifier, the little bit of snark that might send Jim Delany into apoplexy. Recursion: both sides accuse each other of posturing; both sides are right; accusations of posturing are also posturing.
One of the frustrations in this odd experience of talking with these guys for extended periods of time was getting them off their talking points and to delve into some specifics. Anyone who's seen a presidential debate knows the feeling of being talked sort of... at. This isn't a Comcast or BTN thing, it's a general dealing with the media (and, more generally, public perception) thing, where repetition is the holy grail of remembrance. Head On. Apply directly to the forehead. The conversations, both of them, often seemed circular as the (marginal) interviewee wrangled the conversation back around to their desired topics. Maybe this is old hat to grizzled press-hat wearing journos, but, um, not guilty.
ANYWAY, A FREQUENT TOPIC of discussion was that the Big Ten was the anti-fan party here, with their insistence on a basic tier and the removal of all this content that was in the public domain â€“ or at least the syndicated domain â€“ into its own proprietary network. Comcast launched Comcast Local, a marginal RSN with things like baseball, Olympic sports, MAC (and less appealing) football, and Michigan hockey (sadly, road games remain infrequent) a couple years ago, and the network feels a little peeved that the groundwork they laid has been rendered inert, or at least weakened, by the upstart:
"All the Olympic sports, guess who covered those before at zero burden to customers on Comcast Local? We've gotten notes from coaches that say 'thanks, this helps recruiting.' But not once have received any acknowledgement from the Big Ten office."
I kind of doubt that Comcast was doing this out of the kindness of their heart, but I've watched Comcast Local and its commercials and can't believe it was actually making any money.
When the BTN-mentioned Blazers network came up, Connors challenged the Big Ten to do what it was by permitting placement on a sports tier "if they want to compare themselves to other networks." This was a frequent theme: the Big Ten's demands were unreasonable and only served their own selfish purposes, which put Comcast in a tough position:
"That's the awkward part of this. Part of my job is to negotiate deals with emerging networks. What's unique about this is there hasn't been a network that's demanded to be on basic. An increasing number go to digital."
Connors insisted that if the sports tier was greenlighted by the Big Ten, things would be smooth sailing:
"I'll add that channel tomorrow if they give me the launch codes tomorrow. We'll put the fan first, as corny as that sounds."
Connors' focus on the Big Ten's threat to execute, essentially, a denial-of-service attack on their own fans is something I don't think anyone has lost sight of. Connors is correct when he derides the BTN an attempt to "take five million dollars worth of content and charge Comcast 300 million for it over five years," although that content's worth whatever people will pay for it.
But only the endearingly naÃ¯ve would expect anything else from either party. The Big Ten's leverage lies in that segment of the fanbase willing to either switch providers or get a sports tier in order to acquire the channel; just saying "okey-dokey" to placement there would be bringing a sword to a gunfight.
LET'S TALK NUMBERS. One of the more interesting avenues of discussion centered on one of the Big Ten Network's very favorite competitor/analog. We talked about CSS, the southern network that runs 40s in 4.2 and is on basic cable across a wide swath of SEC country. The Big Ten Network loves that as a comparable regional sports network that Comcast happens to own that coincidentally happens to get widespread distribution and has, at least on the surface, way less compelling content.
Facts About CSS:
- CSS does have live sports: about 46 football games and 180-some basketball games
- About 10% of the football games involve an SEC or ACC team (these are usually the Michigan-Appalachian State equivalents); 20-30% of the basketball games do. (Ditto, though sometimes they get higher quality contests if you think a Vanderbilt-Michigan game â€“ which a friend of mine saw on CSS once â€“ counts as higher quality. If it was Ellerbe-era, probably not.) The rest are from Conference USA or Sun Belt or the local D-I basketball-only
- CSS content is not necessarily exclusive; local syndication is possible. Generally the SEC and ACC games get distributed locally.
- CSS costs "less than 30 cents" per subscriber. I took this to mean "somewhere from 25 to 29 cents," as if it was less than 25 he probably would have said "less than 25 cents."
One thing that got the many-repetitions treatment: a primary reason CSS occupies its basic cable slot is its age:
"CSS was launched nine years ago. If that would have come out of the ground in 2007, there's no one who would say that should be on expanded basic. And it's something that might move to a digital tier at some point in the future."
"When CSS came out of the ground in 1998 we we're still trying to fill eighty channels."
Connors then said that he envisioned a future where
all sports channels migrate to their own tiers and the idea of a basic cable sports network evaporates. I didn't mention this in to Connors because it didn't occur to me at the time, but it's hard to swallow that when my current package has Versus â€“ not that I want it to go away, Vive le Tour â€“ Speed, and the Golf Network. Those seem clearly less relevant and important to people in the BTN footprint than the Big Ten Network.
So, yeah this line of argument didn't really fly with me. Clearly there are some regional sports networks that cable companies have acceded to on their basic tiers because of the importance of their content to carriers. Heck, when Fox bought DirectTV regional sports networks got a special arbitration process so Rupert Murdoch couldn't deny access to other content providers that wanted to carry this critical content. (Critical in an "important to the consuming public" fashion, not a "helps Darfur" fashion.) So it's a matter of deciding whether the BTN is closer to whatever your local carrier of MLB/NHL/NBA games is or to something like the NFL Network or NBA TV. It obviously exists in a gray area between the two. It's not a national item of intermittent interest like the latter; it's not a laser-focused must-have that would cause mass defections if it was not present.
The Big Ten Network misrepresented CSS to me, and I'm glad Connors clarified to me that the network was not the 1987 Iron Bowl repeating 24 hours a day, but I think Comcast tried to do the same thing. I had to wrangle the percentages of SEC/ACC teams featured out of Connors, as the original phrasing was something like "45 football games including SEC and ACC games," but... like...four or five? I made the point that a few SEC or ACC games interspersed among Conference USA and Sun Belt (boo!) games didn't make for a good comparison here; the Big Ten Network clearly has a more compelling programming lineup. So it was something of a shock to me when I asked for a clarification on what Comcast considered to be a non-burdensome price to consumers, and got this response:
"On aggregate, we value this channel at between 8 and 25 cents."
Yikes. I never really got a perspective on this number, though I tried. It seems preposterously low if it's meant to be a per-subscriber cost in the Big Ten footprint. I asked if that was an in-footprint number and got an assent; I still think that this is a miscommunication of some variety. I pressed on the CSS-BTN comparison, since it seems totally unreasonable to offer less for a network with much more interesting content, but this was clearly an uncomfortable part of the conversation and didn't get a rationale behind that beyond...
"The broader distribution makes the carrying costs lower. The only way for a channel to get widely distributed usually is if it proves itself."
...which did not explain the gap.
WHERE IS THIS HEADED? Connors did say that he was sure that there would be "expedited" negotiations over the next couple weeks where parties from both sides lock themselves in a room and fight to the death. Both Silverman and Connors, when pressed, claimed to be "optimistic" that a deal would get done â€“ that word precisely from both of them â€“ but based that optimism mostly on the belief that the other party was weak like Ukraine and would fold. Connors, when asked if basic is a possibility given some Big Ten price flexibility:
No, I can't see it on basic this fall. I won't say there's no scenario on basic. If the rate's at a number that isn't a burden to consumers...
The implication there was that the two parties were far apart on what constitutes a "burden" at the moment. Connors, for his part, invoked the idea that Big Ten president's wouldn't stand for the channel's unavailability:
I think there's such an overwhelming, pragmatic argument that is against the currently proposed Big Ten Network. I guarantee university presidents think it's not their goal to charge a fee to every household in Michigan. I guarantee the presidents were never briefed on this. I think that will overcome some of the insanity that's been proposed in the last month and a half. I think it will get placement on a sports tier.
We'll know in a couple weeks.
What strikes me is that both sides here have reached out to all sorts of media, including pissant bloggers, in a fight that's become public in a way that doesn't happen when, say, ESPN Classic gets booted to the high stratosphere, let alone the Food Network or National Geographic or whatever. And this subject acquires more comments and emails than any other save the absolutely true and incontrovertible fact that Notre Dame runs on the souls of babies. That alone indicates to me that both the Big Ten and Comcast have significant interest in getting the channel on in some way or another. I don't think we go into the year without the BTN available, but that's just a hunch, and one biased by hope at that.