CHICAGO – Shortly after noticing his team was tabbed the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten title by the media, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr quipped back with his assessment of the writers’ intellectual fortitude.
“I’d have to question your intelligence,” Carr said.
Carr wasn’t the only one to challenge the media’s assessment. Michigan State superstar sophomore wide receiver Charles Rogers also had something to say about it. His Spartans, which return eight starters from the Big Ten’s top offense last season, were picked to finish third, behind Ohio State.
“They always pick Michigan,” Rogers said, smiling. “That ain’t nothing new.”
“One thing about Michigan is – they’re up there every year. So the media is going a lot off the past. It’s cool because it shows us who we have to beat. We’re the underdogs and we’ve just got to prove them wrong.”
Besides Michigan’s storied past and winning at least a share of the Big Ten crown three of the past five years, the Wolverines return eight defensive starters from a unit that led the conference in total and rushing defense, while setting a school record with 50 sacks.
Michigan’s defense is drawing comparisons to the 1997 team, which – on the strength of its defense and the poised shoulders of quarterback Brian Griese – won a share of the national title. A similar situation seems to exist this season, as the defense is expected to be the team’s strength, especially as there are not many proven players on the offensive side of the ball. Carr would not disclose any new information on his starting quarterback this fall, saying once again, it’s still a “competition.”
“Defensively, we’ll have probably the most depth and as good of talent up front returning,” Carr said. “The secondary is probably as solid as we’ve had, particularly the safety position.”
While Michigan has an experienced, intimidating defense, the Spartans have the look of a young, overpowering offense.
With arguably the conference’s most potent 1-2 combination of junior quarterback Jeff Smoker and Rogers, Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, returning, Michigan State earned its highest preseason ranking since 1988 – the year after the Spartans won the Rose Bowl. And Smoker said he thinks the Spartans have the talent and maturity to capture the crown this year.
“We should,” Smoker said. “We have the athletes to do it, and barring any injuries like last season, I think we can definitely contend and turn some heads.”
But the choice of Ohio State to finish second further shows how wide open the Big Ten race may be this season. The Buckeyes, coming off a 7-5 season and a win over Michigan under first-year coach Jim Tressel, could start a freshman quarterback and tailback when their season opens against Texas Tech on Aug. 24. Besides having to replace its entire starting backfield, Ohio State must also replace three starting offensive lineman and come up with two new cornerbacks on defense. The presence of two-time All American strong safety Michael Doss should help the situation. The senior, who was picked Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, led the Buckeyes in tackles the past two seasons, recording 87 last year and 94 as a sophomore.
“He tells me he wants to play receiver, he wants to return punts and he wants to block punts,” Tressel said. “And I told him that its pretty hard to try to block a punt and then get back in time to return it.”
Last year’s Big Ten Champion, Illinois, are coming off a 10-2 season and a Sugar Bowl berth but failed to make the top three preseason spots – most likely due to the graduation of star quarterback Kurt Kittner.
“We’ve had a past of not getting much respect and recognition in the preseason,” said Illinois cornerback Eugene Wilson. “We just got to go out there and turn some heads.”
Athlon, Blue Ribbon and Lindy’s preseason magazines all chose Michigan as the team to beat in the conference, with The Sporting News picking Ohio State and Street & Smith’s tabbing Michigan State. The last time Michigan was picked as favorites by the media – in 2000 – they captured the title. But the Wolverines know preseason hype doesn’t mean a thing – especially after last year’s disappointing finish. The Wolverines still finished second in the Big Ten, but lost to Ohio State at home and got trounced by Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. They finished with their worst record (8-4) since 1996.
“Anytime you end the season the way we did, the best way to describe the off-season is miserable,” Carr said.