Bielema Optimistic about UW's 2009
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's team may have lost games but he didn't lose his sense of humor.
The Badgers had an uneven season last year, going 7-6 overall and tying for sixth in the Big Ten with a 3-5 mark. There were rumblings that Bielema, the hand-picked successor to head coach-turned-athletic director Barry Alvarez three years earlier, might be on the hot seat.
But Bielema is back for another year. Like everyone else he expressed optimism Tuesday when the Big Ten's coaches spoke about their spring prospects.
"It's an exciting time. We're all undefeated right now," he said. Then, addressing Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, he added, "We'll go into the spring game and if we can't win that one, we're all in trouble."
Here's a brief look at the conference's teams, in order of 2008 finish, through the eyes of the coaches:
The Nittany Lions (11-2, 7-1 a year ago) return the fewest position starters of any conference team (9) as ageless Joe Paterno begins his 44th year at the helm. Penn State will build around QB Daryll Clark and TB Evan Royster while trying to fill holes on the offensive line, at both CB spots and at wide receiver.
The 82-year-old Paterno, with a 383-127-3 career mark, is locked in a struggle with Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who is 373-119-4, for the most wins among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. But it's not as if he's counting.
"This business about who wins the most games -- argh," he said. "I don't care who has the most wins. I really don't. I just hope we do a good job here and win as many games as we should with the kind of people we have."
The Buckeyes (10-3, 7-1) can become only the third Big Ten team to win five conference titles in a row this fall. To do that, they'll have to do a major rebuild -- replacing top TB Chris "Beanie" Wells, the two top WRs, two offensive linemen, All-American LB James Laurinaitis and stellar CB Malcolm Jenkins.
Coach Jim Tressel enters his ninth year with talented but unpredictable QB Terrelle Pryor running the attack.
Pryor had difficulty passing last year, and suffered from a sore arm during last Friday's workout. But Tressel said his prized pupil is fine.
"I just think he overdid it a little bit," Tressel said. "The medical report this morning, there was nothing on there that he wouldn't be able to go today. So I would assume he'll be fine."
The Spartans (9-4, 6-2) lost QB Brian Hoyer and TB Javon Ringer to graduation, but still have seven offensive and eight defensive starters back.
Michigan State's surprising run to the NCAA title game in men's basketball serves as inspiration for coach Mark Dantonio.
"I'm sitting in my office right now and about 300 yards away is our basketball facility," he said. "We talk a lot about championships here and what it takes to win championships. You don't have to look too far to see those things going on in our basketball program."
The Hawkeyes won seven of their last eight games to turn a sorry season into a respectable one (9-4, 5-3). But this year they won't have Shonn Greene, who was second in the country with 144 yards rushing per game and joined MSU's Ringer in the first-team All-America backfield.
Coach Kirk Ferentz, who does have 14 starters back, will look to a committee to take Greene's place.
"The way we finished the season, we had Joel Hampton as our second-team guy. So he moves up a line," Ferentz said. "Shonn just had extraordinary production a year ago. We don't expect any one person to fill that void. But we've got a capable group back there. You'll probably see several guys contribute as opposed to Shonn being the featured guy a year ago."
Injuries forced the Wildcats (9-4, 5-3) to play a lot of people last year. The days when Northwestern had barely enough players to fill out the roster are over, coach (and former player) Pat Fitzgerald said.
"The depth is probably as strong as it's ever been," said Fitzgerald, who has 13 starters back. "Last year we had nine players at one point or another out for at least a game. To be able to get nine wins shows where the depth is in our program. To make a comparison, when I came here in 1993 as a student-athlete, if we had one starter go down we were in deep, deep trouble."
The surprise team of the 2008 season (improving from 1-11, 0-8 to 7-6, 3-5), the Golden Gophers can rely on QB Adam Weber and his favorite target, WR Eric Decker, among a Big Ten-best 18 returning front-liners.
Oh, and they can also rely on a new, glittering on-campus stadium instead of sharing the massive Metrodome with the Twins and Vikings.
"We're really looking forward to having a home game and it truly being a home game for us," coach Tim Brewster said. "Our fans go back to when football was played on campus here there were six national championships won. It's time for us to kind of reconnect with that great tradition and history."
After last season's subpar record, Bielema had everyone in and around the program do evaluations to make improvements. He also interviewed 98 returning players about what needed to be done to turn things around.
"We've made some changes in every area," he said.
A lot hangs on the legs and right arm of four-year starting QB Juice Williams, who will be asked to not only lead the offense but his teammates. The Illini (5-7, 3-5) ended 2008 on a three-game slide.
"He's taking charge. He's more vocal than he has been in the past," coach Ron Zook said. "He's excited about this year. He has really stepped up to the challenge."
Danny Hope takes over for the retired Joe Tiller for Purdue (4-8, 2-6). Hope hopes to put his own stamp on things, but one area he doesn't plan to change substantially is Tiller's spread attack.
"We'll certainly be in the shotgun quite a bit and spread the field and throw the football," he said. "Purdue identifies with that. We think that gives us our best chance to win. But there'll be a lot of new wrinkles to the offense in 2009."
The Wolverines' lost year (3-9, 2-6) included defeats in their last four home games -- with a setback to sub-.500 Toledo.
Coach Rich Rodriguez, back for a second go, expects things to be a lot better because he's got more talent and more experience, even though he's still seeking a triggermen for his spread option attack. Talented freshman Tate Forcier enrolled early and took most of the snaps in spring practice.
"Just having experience is not good enough," he said. "We have to have experience and be better, and I think our guys are committed to that."
Coach Bill Lynch welcomes back 17 starters in hopes of turning around a season in which the Hoosiers (3-9, 1-7) lived and frequently died with the forward pass.
"We're trying to run the ball a little bit more in sets other than the spread," he said. "We were pretty much a spread football team the last couple of years and we want to become a little more multiple."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)