Big Ten Preview: TV deliberations could put teams outside the box

By Rusty Miller

This should be a banner year for the Big Ten. The problem is, few may get a chance to see it.

The Big Ten’s new television network is struggling to reach agreements with the biggest cable providers in the Midwest, and the clock is ticking on the Sept. 1 openers.

The sticking point is that the conference insists that it must be on basic expanded cable. Comcast and Time Warner say no way.

“When the cable company decides to send 70 channels – the food channel, and the dog channel and the bike channel and the jewelry channel – into your home, (we believe) that the Big Ten Network deserves to be in that grouping,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “Everything else is pretty negotiable.”

If the deals don’t get done, be prepared for infomercials instead of Big Ten showdowns.

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The favorite figures to be MICHIGAN. In this era of kids jumping early to the pros, the Wolverines’ biggest stars are back. First massive left tackle Jake Long said he was coming back, which prodded tailback Mike Hart and QB Chad Henne to return.

“It’s not fair to criticize a guy for leaving, but for the three guys that stayed, I think it speaks volumes about them and what their values and goals are,” coach Lloyd Carr said. “We’re excited to have them back. They are three special guys, not just three special football players.”

The Wolverines still need to patch some holes on both lines and at linebacker, but standouts such as WR Mario Manningham, linebacker Shawn Crable and safety Jamar Adams should make that reconstruction easier.

All those literally blue-collar fans at The Big House have tired of the late-season pratfalls of the guys in winged helmets – four straight bowl losses and a three-year drought against rival Ohio State. Many are not happy with the coach.

Asked what his team’s biggest weakness is, the 62-year-old Carr cracked, “Weaknesses? Just me. Why do I say that? I’m old.”

WISCONSIN is loaded, just not at a couple of key spots. With QB John Stocco graduated, the nation’s most overlooked 12-1 team last year desperately needs Tyler Donovan or Allan Evridge – either one – to take control of the job. That’s the only hole on offense from a team that is riding a nine-game win streak.

“I can assure you you’re not going to see a two-platoon quarterback system out of Wisconsin,” coach Bret Bielema said. “Never say never, but that’s not on my agenda.”

TB P.J. Hill is coming off a 1,569-yard season and will ease the transition for the young QBs. The Badgers get Michigan at home a week after they play at Ohio State on Nov. 3. The whole season will revolve around how they do in that short span.

OHIO STATE must rebuild its offense. No problem. A year ago the Buckeyes came in with just two starters on defense and all the new guys did was hold nine teams to 10 or fewer points. Of course, both sides of the ball picked up speed burns from Florida players running past them in the BCS championship game, which the Gators won by a stunningly easy 41-14 count. The Buckeyes are still embarrassed by that one.

“It’s an exciting time to get back at it, especially when your last game wasn’t as good as you would have liked it to have been,” coach Jim Tressel said.

QB Todd Boeckman will likely draw the assignment of replacing the Heisman winner. LB James Laurinaitis is the Big Ten’s best on defense. Both will have their hands full on Nov. 17 in the traditional season-ender against Michigan in Ann Arbor.

There is nothing that 80-year-old Joe Paterno would like better in his 42nd year as the head coach at PENN STATE than a third national title. He’s joined by standout LB Dan Connor and QB Anthony Morelli. The ol’ high-pants-and-white-socks coach has returned from knee surgery and now must find somebody to replace TB Tony Hunt (1,386 rushing yards, 27 catches) and LB Paul Posluszny, who led the team with 116 tackles.

“After I had the operation, the doctor asked me how long I wanted to still coach,” JoePa said. “I said, ‘Five or six years.’ He said, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t.”’An 0-4 finish doomed IOWA to its first losing season (6-7) in six years under coach Kirk Ferentz. Most of the offensive line is gone, along with QB Drew Tate. Ferentz will earn his $2 million-plus annual salary if he can get the Hawkeyes flying up instead of down.

PURDUE will pay for a relatively soft early schedule (Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan, Minnesota) with consecutive tests against Notre Dame, Ohio State and at Michigan. That doesn’t mean coach Joe Tiller is down.

“We have a degree of optimism at Purdue in the sense that we have the most starters back (18) that we’ve had in our 10 years here,” Tiller said.

Instead of celebrating another step in its rebuilding project, INDIANA is still shaken by the death of coach Terry Hoeppner. The Hoosiers had a bowl trip in their grasp last year until losing their last three games. Now that Bill Lynch has moved from interim to head coach, it’ll be hard for the Hoosiers to not take a step back despite the presence of double-threat QB Kellen Lewis and sterling WR James Hardy.

NORTHWESTERN went through a similar experience last year after the death of coach Randy Walker.

“We were shattered when Coach Walker died,” TB Tyrell Sutton said.

The Wildcats won two of three to start the year and two of three at the end, but lost six in a row in the middle. With Sutton (1,000 yards on the button) and QB C.J. Bacher back, coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes to be more consistent throughout.

Two teams followed humiliating collapses by firing their head coaches.

MICHIGAN STATE was 3-0 and ahead of No. 12 Notre Dame by 16 points at home heading into the fourth quarter. Then the Spartans went belly up, losing 40-37, the first of eight losses in their last nine games. John L. Smith was let go after the season and defensive-minded Mark Dantonio was hired from Cincinnati. He draws a brutal schedule, which includes road games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Up by 31 points with less than two quarters left in the Insight Bowl against Texas Tech, MINNESOTA found a way to lose 44-41, costing coach Glen Mason his job. Now Tim Brewster, a receivers coach in the NFL, is brimming with positivity despite off-field problems that led to four players being banished from the team.

“Change is not always something that is bad,” RB Amir Pinnix said. “Change can be pretty good.”

ILLINOIS unveiled one of the Big Ten’s most exciting players in Juice Williams, but still lost four games by seven or fewer points – including taking then-No. 1 Ohio State to the mat before falling 17-10. There are nine starters back on each side of the line to fuel optimism.

Now if their fans just get a chance to watch them on TV …