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Published: Wednesday, 8/1/2007

UM, OSU to fight for Big Ten title as usual

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

CHICAGO When it came time for the experts to conduct an in-depth analysis of the manpower and resources in each of the football programs in the Big Ten Conference, they did not call on a complex mathematical formula or an intricate computer model to reach their eventual conclusion.

They did what any good sheriff in a low-budget western would do they just went out and rounded up the usual suspects.

This year, in its 112th season of football, the Big Ten should have Michigan and Ohio State at or near the top of the standings, for what has to seem like the 113th time. The media covering the league voted the Wolverines as the preseason choice to win the conference title, with Wisconsin picked second and Ohio State third.

The league only announces the top three in its poll, and for the last seven years, both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines have been in that elite trio of teams, while Michigan has been up there 12 years in a row.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who has won five Big Ten titles, said being selected as the top team in the conference is an honor, and a tribute to the Wolverines program. Then he added, with a touch of sarcasm: And we will do everything we can to make those of you who voted us so high look good.

Michigan returns six starters from an offense that is expected to be one of the league s most productive. Led by a pair of four-year starters quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart the Wolverines are pursuing their first conference title since 2004, when they were successful as the league s defending champions.

At the annual meeting of the league s coaches, top players and the media covering the conference, Carr said yesterday that the Wolverines face the same daunting challenge as any team tabbed as the favorite.

The league s champion will be determined on the field, but if you ve played at Michigan, then you ve experienced such expectations, and the pressure that goes along with it, he said.

Michigan went 11-2 last year, and 7-1 in the conference, losing only to defending Big Ten champion Ohio State, and then Southern California in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines, who are pursuing their 43rd conference title, have the luxury of playing six of their first seven games at home in the Big House.

Wisconsin, which won a record 12 games last season with just a loss to Michigan marring the record of first-year coach Bret Bielema, tied the Wolverines for second place in the conference in 2006. The Badgers have 18 starters back, including last season s Big Ten freshman of the year, running back P.J. Hill.

Bielema knows the potential in his deep and rich talent pool, but he is also wary of a schedule that has him playing Ohio State and Michigan on consecutive weekends near the season s end.

We have a chance to be a good football team, but I d love to see the computer that spit that one out where we play Ohio State and Michigan back-to-back, Bielema said. We need to play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulders, and be aware of where we are picked in the conference, since last season we weren t on anyone s radar.

Ohio State, ranked No. 1 in the country last year from the pre-season until the loss to Florida in the national championship game, has more work to do filling holes than either Michigan or Wisconsin. The Buckeyes lost most of their offensive firepower with the graduation of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith, and the early exit to the NFL by receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, and running back Antonio Pittman.

I think it shows respect for our program that we get picked that high, given the number of guys we lost, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. That s all just for discussion right now, and it remains to be seen if Ohio State can finish that high or ultimately be as good as last year. Right now, I don t know if we re worthy of being No. 3.

The Buckeyes, 12-1 last year when they went 8-0 as conference champions, have won three Big Ten titles in Tressel s six years as coach. He said Ohio State s position in the league s preseason poll is of little significance if the right work is not done over the next month.

One of the secrets to us being good is being able to put all of that aside, and then putting our nose to the grindstone to be as best prepared as we can possible be, Tressel said. I know the poll is out there, but we re really not in the top three because we haven t played any games yet. We have to earn it every week.

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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