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Wednesday, August 13
Updated: August 18, 5:46 PM ET
Experience rules in the Big Ten

By Herb Gould
Special to ESPN.com

There are a lot of reasons to think the Buckeyes, who upset Miami to win the national championship last January, can make another title run. Seventeen returning starters who have been there, for starters.

Even sophomore running back Maurice Clarett's penchant for making headlines off the field doesn't detract from the potential of the powerhouse third-year coach Jim Tressel has assembled.

Around The Big Ten
Illinois Fighting Illini
Indiana Hoosiers
Iowa Hawkeyes
Michigan Wolverines
Michigan State Spartans
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Northwestern Wildcats
Ohio State Buckeyes
Penn State Nittany Lions
Purdue Boilermakers
Wisconsin Badgers

What's going to make the Buckeyes' repeat bid perilous, though, is a balanced and experienced Big Ten. Just about everywhere east of Iowa City and west of State College, Pa., the conference is loaded with returnees. Iowa and Penn State, which each return 11 starters, are the only Big Ten schools that don't have at least 13 starters back.

And nine of the schools have a chance to have an experienced quarterback running their offenses. They aren't glamour guys. Even Buckeyes quarterback Craig Krenzel, who was better known for his pre-med major than his arm before he stood tall in the eye of the Hurricanes, is merely a blue-collar guy with a growing reputation for grittyness.

But there's a lot to be said for having an experienced hand directing your offense when upwards of 100,000 rabid fans are warming a chilly Midwest autumn afternoon with frenzied roars.

And like Krenzel, virtually all of these experienced Big Ten QBs are likely to be on a mission. John Navarre, who directs Michigan, considered the Buckeyes' biggest obstacle, has heard his share of boos from Wolverine fans and seems poised for a year of atonement.

At Purdue, Kyle Orton, after playing musical quarterbacks with Brandon Kirsch, is an experienced and knowledgable leader who has Joe Tiller's trust. At Wisconsin, fifth-year senior Jim Sorgi is itching to make his only year as a starter count after years of doing clutch backup work.

Penn State will be counting on a seasoned Zack Mills to make up for the departure of offensive stars such as 2,000-yard rusher Larry Johnson. In similar fashion, Minnesota figures to turn loose Asad Abdul-Khaliq to take full advantage of its skilled offense. An experienced Brett Basanez might help Northwestern improve by outscoring people.

Illinois showed what it can do in the second half last season, winning four of six after Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer mastered the basics of Ron Turner's passing game.

Even Michigan State could surprise if Jeff Smoker, who left the team due to a substance-abuse problem in midseason, resurfaces -- a possibility that new Spartans coach John L. Smith won't rule out.

The only true newcomers in the Big Ten quarterback club are Iowa's Nathan Chandler and Indiana's Matt LoVecchio, and LoVecchio, a Notre Dame transfer, is not a newcomer to the pressures of running an offense.

They may not have enough to unseat the Buckeyes. But they are experienced enough.

Game of the Year
Sorry, parity fans. But the Ohio State-Michigan game on Nov. 22 once again looms large because the Buckeyes and the Wolverines once again are the best bets in the Big Ten. Jim Tressel, who's 2-0 against Michigan, will try to guide Ohio State to its first three-game winning streak in the series since it won four straight in 1960-63.

Offensive Player of the Year
If Maurice Clarett, Ohio State's sophomore sensation, plays, he's the man. He's a wondrous talent on a team that's so good defenses can't load up on him. If Clarett gets bogged down, keep an eye on his teammate, Chris Gamble, a two-way star whose skills at receiver get lost in the shadow of his ability to play cornerback.

Defensive Player of the Year
Purdue middle linebacker Niko Koutouvides is hardly a household name. But he's the man in the middle of what could be a very stingy defense. Among returnees, only Indiana strong safety Herana-Daze Jones averaged more tackles per game. And the IU defense was on the field a lot more than Purdue's defense, which led the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed.

Herb Gould covers college football for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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