Big Ten Soccer Predictions

The beginning of any sports season invites predictions, and with the NCAA Women's Soccer season starting this weekend, that means I'm just about out of time to get my predictions done!  The Big Ten was a very balanced conference a season ago, with two teams tying for the league championship, and a third team finishing just one point out of first.  Here's a look at the 2010 final standings:

                            BIG TEN                                                 OVERALL

 

 

W

L

T

Pts

Pct.

GF

GA

 

W

L

T

Pct.

GF

GA

1.

Ohio.State

8

2

0

24

.800

14

6

 

17

5

2

.750

38

15

 

Penn.State

8

2

0

24

.800

25

8

 

11

9

1

.548

41

26

3.

Wisconsin

7

1

2

23

.800

13

3

 

11

4

5

.675

22

11

4.

Illinois

6

3

1

19

.650

14

10

 

13

5

1

.711

32

16

5.

Michigan

5

3

2

17

.600

11

10

 

10

5

4

.632

26

18

6.

Minnesota

4

4

2

14

.500

14

10

 

14

6

3

.674

43

18

7.

Michigan.State

3

4

3

12

.450

7

7

 

9

6

4

.579

22

13

8.

Northwestern

2

7

1

7

.250

8

13

 

6

10

3

.395

20

22

 

Purdue

2

7

1

7

.250

10

24

 

6

12

2

.350

27

37

10.

Indiana

2

8

0

6

.200

9

22

 

6

12

1

.342

27

38

11.

Iowa

1

7

2

5

.200

10

22

 

8

9

3

.475

32

28

 

Looking back on my picks from 2010, my big misses were Ohio State and Michigan, who I picked to finish 7th and 8th respectively.  On the flip side, I expected better seasons from Minnesota and Michigan State, who I picked to finish 2nd and 4th a season ago.  I was only two places off for Purdue (picked 6th, finished 8th), but I certainly didn't expect a losing season from what had been a very consistent program under Rob Klatte.

Of course, the conference has a new member in 2011, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  The Huskers finished in a tie for third place last year in their final Big 12 campaign, with a 5-4-1 league mark, and 13-7-1 overall.  Despite a good overall record, Nebraska was passed over by the NCAA selection committee with a lack of quality non-conference results.  Nebraska was a very powerful offensive side in 2010, notching 48 goals a season ago, led by Hermann Award candidate Morgan Marlborough, who would have easily led the Big Ten with her 18 goals.  On the flip side, the Huskers were not a very stingy defensive club, allowing 34 goals last season.  If Nebraska can tighten up its defense this season, they could cause some problems in what has traditionally been a very defensive-minded conference.  They were also 2-0 against Big Ten teams last year, defeating Indiana and Iowa in their non-conference slate.

All twelve teams return at least six of their starters from a season ago, with Wisconsin returning ten of eleven.  Minnesota returns the fewest with six, but does return two of its top three goal scorers from last season.  Overall, 12 of the top 15 goal scorers from 2010 will be back to wreak more havoc on Big Ten defenses this year, which could mean a bit more offense overall.

The other change in 2011 is the return of the Big Ten Tournament after a two-year absence.  As before, there will be eight teams that qualify for the postseason tournament, but it will be a bit more spread out than before.  In past incarnations, the quarterfinals and semifinals were on consecutive days.  This year, the quarterfinals will be Wednesday, the semifinals Friday and the final on Sunday, which should give teams a bit more rest.  The tournament will be held in Evanston on Northwestern's artificial surface.

Let's get to the picks.  The numbers in parenthesis represent the number of starters returning/lost for each team from a season ago.

1. Penn State (8/3).  The Nittany Lions got off to an awful start in 2010, limping into Big Ten play with a 2-6-2 record.  But just when people were ready to write them off, they remembered that they'd won at least a share of the last twelve Big Ten titles, and proceeded to add a thirteenth.  I can't pick anyone else to win this conference until someone actually knocks Penn State off of this perch.

2. Wisconsin (10/1).  Paula Wilkins continues to build a quality program in Madison, as her Badgers were just one point out of first place in the Big Ten a season ago, finishing third.  Wisconsin was the stingiest team in the league defensively, allowing just three goals in conference games in 2010.  The key for them taking another step forward is finding some goal-scoring help for All-American candidate Laurie Nosbusch.

3. Ohio State (7/4).  The Buckeyes will try to build on the momentum from last season that carried them all the way to the College Cup semifinals in 2010.  Leading goal-scorer Paige Maxwell returns, but will they be able to fill the shoes of first-team All American defender Cassie Dickerson?  If so, they could be poised to win another league title.

4. Illinois (7/4).  This may be a different type of team than we're used to seeing in Champaign-Urbana.  Janet Rayfield lost her two starting center backs from a season ago in Danielle Kot and Krystin Miller, but returns Big Ten Freshman of the Year Vanessa DiBernardo in the midfield, along with fellow All-Freshman team member Megan Pawloski.  Senior Julie Ewing may also move from the back line into the midfield after a successful summer as an attacking player for the Chicago Red Stars of the WPSL.  There are plenty of scoring options, and so if the revamped defense, including new goalkeeper Steph Panozzo, can keep opponents off the scoreboard, it could be a very exciting season for the Illini.

5. Michigan (7/4).  I thought this would be the year that Greg Ryan took Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament, but the Wolverines made that happen a year ahead of schedule.  They may have overachieved just a bit last season, as they only outscored their conference opponents 11-10 while finishing with a 5-3-2 record in the league.  As last season went along, teams struggled to stop All Freshman team member Nkem Ezurike from scoring, as she finished the year with nine goals, which tied her for fifth place in the conference.  Ryan continues to attract talent to Ann Arbor, so another NCAA appearance could be in the cards.

6. Michigan State (7/4).  Top two scorers Laura Heyboer and Olivia Stander combined for 18 goals last season.  That's good.  The rest of the team only contributed four goals.  That's bad.  The Spartans struggled in the midfield last season, which led to fewer scoring opportunities for Heyboer.  MSU's defense was very good, but couldn't make up for scoring only seven goals in ten league games.   Look for a few more goals for Sparty in 2011.

7. Purdue (9/2).  2010 was a season to forget in West Lafayette.  All aspects of play took a step backward, resulting in a dismal 6-12-2 campaign for head coach Rob Klatte.  This could be a team that starts slow, thanks in part to a difficult non-conference schedule that includes NCAA Tournament teams West Virginia, Oregon State and USC.  But with nine returning starters and a coach who has shown the ability to find players that fit his system, expect some improvement in 2011.

8.  Minnesota (6/5).  The Golden Gophers were a very experienced team last season that struggled through much of the conference season and earned one of the last at large bids in the NCAA Tournament field.  They took advantage of the opportunity, which included hosting all three of their NCAA tournament games, and advanced to the round of 16 before falling to Georgetown.  The Gophers return some scoring punch and their highly regarded goalkeeper, Cat Parkhill, but lose second team All-Big Ten performers Katie Bethke and Kylie Kallman, who could be difficult to replace.

9. Nebraska (7/4).  The Huskers are the most difficult team for me to gage, as I've never seen them in person and haven't followed them all that closely from afar during their time in the Big 12.  As mentioned above, they have a lot of scoring punch, led by Morgan Marlborough, but really struggled defensively.  The Big Ten has been a league where defensive toughness has been required to win.  The three best defensive teams in league play a season ago were the top three teams overall, and the worst three teams defensively were the bottom three teams overall.  Nebraska has more offensive punch than the bottom of the Big Ten, but their defensive struggles may keep them closer to the bottom than the top in their first season in a new conference.

10. Northwestern (7/4).  The Wildcats pulled off a huge upset early in the nonconference season against UCLA last year, but that result proved to be a mirage, as Northwestern struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, especially in league play.  Northwestern was shut out five times in league play, and only managed more than one goal in two conference games.  The 'cats will need to find some help for Kate Allen, who led the team with six goals as a freshman.  Allen was the only Northwestern player to score more than twice in 2010.

11. Iowa (9/2).  For two consecutive seasons, the Hawkeyes have built up good non-conference records against lower level opponents before faltering badly in Big Ten play.  It appears that Iowa is going for the hat trick.  Their toughest non-conference opponent appears to be DePaul out of the Big East, but the Blue Demons are hardly a national power.  Iowa does return nine starters from last season, so there should be some improvement, but they didn't place a single player on the all-conference teams last season.  Look for another low league finish in 2011.

12. Indiana (7/4).  A disappointing finish to 2009 carried over to a miserable 2010 for the Hoosiers, who were just 6-12-1 last season.  They have some weapons on offense, led by junior Orianica Velasquez and senior Carly Samp.  The two combined for 15 goals last season.  However, IU ranked last in the conference by allowing 38 goals overall, an average of 2.00 per game.  Without some improvement on that side of the ball, it could be another long season in Bloomington.

The season gets started this Friday, with eleven Big Ten teams in action on opening night.  It should be another fun season, and I look forward to seeing how wrong I am with these picks.  Next time around, I'll go through Illinois' schedule game-by-game and project how the Illini will finish in 2011.  Thanks for reading.

bmoline@wdws.com

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