staff, September 20, 2012

With the Big Ten season set to kick off this weekend, it?s time to check out the upcoming match-ups and see who may be equipped to give their coach a Gatorade shower this fall. In four years of playing college soccer in the Big Ten at Northwestern and one year of observing it, you begin to notice trends as to why certain teams win the title in a given year.

In my estimation, there are four key factors that usually determine the results each season: a stud goalkeeper who is ideally tall (See: Miller, Tyler), an organized and disciplined defense, trusted role players who buy into the team concept, and finally a guy or three that can put the ball in the back of the net.

I am going to use my aforementioned five-year (2007-2011) sample size as an example of what to look for in the current Big Ten teams to see who may have the necessary personnel and intangibles to contend for a Big Ten title. For the sake of this analysis, I am going to look at just regular season Big Ten results and then re-evaluate come tourney time.

Big Ten Standings (as of Sept. 18)
Team Record Pct. Pts. Record Pct.
Northwestern 0-0-0 .000 0 5-0-2 .857
Indiana 0-0-0 .000 0 5-1-1 .786
Penn St. 0-0-0 .000 0 5-1-1 .786
Wisconsin 0-0-0 .000 0 2-2-3 .500
Ohio St. 0-0-0 .000 0 3-4-1 .438
Michigan 0-0-0 .000 0 2-4-0 .333
Michigan St. 0-0-0 .000 0 2-5-1 .312
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The first step to contending for a Big Ten title is to have a net minder that can stand on his figurative head when need be, although having a keeper with the athleticism to literally do so doesn?t hurt either. Head standing aside, four out of the five said years, the regular season champion has boasted an All-Big Ten (three first-team) goalkeeper highlighted by Avery Steinlage of Michigan State in 2008 and Miller of Northwestern as a freshman last season. Both actually went on to win the tournament crown as well, but in coach-speak, let?s not look too far in advance.

In front of the keeper, it is imperative to have staunch defense. Only once in the previous five years has the regular season champion had a goals against average above one. That season, 2010, is a statistical outlier for Big Ten soccer as four players scored over 17 goals. For comparison, Indiana forward Eriq Zavaleta was the only player to record double digit goals last season with 10. Going along with a disciplined defense is where the unselfish role players come in. These are the Shane Battier no stats All-Stars who aren?t going to show up on BTN Soccer Report, but they do the little things to help teams win such as an flank defender or midfielder grinding up and down the field or simply a forward pressing the opposing back four defensively.

While the old cliché "defense wins championships" is certainly true for Big Ten soccer and has determined titles in my time more so than one special player has, somebody still needs to score. Going 0-0-6 with six 0-0 draws is unlikely to get the job done. Only two out of five years the champion had a player hit double figures, so you don?t necessarily need a superstar to win. But if you don?t have a Doug DeMartin of Michigan State in 2008 or Will Bruin of Indiana in 2010, or to a lesser extent, Oliver Kupe of Northwestern last year, you better have a strong committee of weapons like Indiana (2007) and Ohio State (2009) to go with a suffocating defense.

With that history in mind, let?s analyze the games on the schedule for the opening weekend to see who may be the leader of the pack this year in a legendary conference.

PENN STATE (5-1-1) @ WISCONSIN (2-2-3) Friday at 8:30 PM ET
The Nittany Lions and Badgers open up Big Ten play in Madison where Penn State will look to get off on the right foot after inexplicably going 0-6 in regular season play last season and Wisconsin will try to build off a 4-2 Big Ten season where they came up just short.

Penn State has a tall and talented keeper in Andrew Wolverton, who got a bit overshadowed by NU?s Miller last season. Wolverton actually came into the season with more fanfare as a former U-18 United States Men?s National team player. He has battled injuries so far this season only playing in 228 minutes, but in those minutes, Penn State has not allowed a goal and has a .55 goals against average overall. If Wolverton can stay healthy and senior Brian Forgue can continue to keeps things tidy at the back, this team could be a team to watch moving forward.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, has surrendered 11 goals in seven games and doesn?t have the type of star that can compensate for a porous defense like Bruin did for Indiana and their 1.4 goals against average in 2010. Junior forward Chris Prince (2 G, 2 A) is good, but I don't think Wisconsin is King of the Big Ten.
Prediction: Penn State 2, Wisconsin 1

No. 15 INDIANA (5-1-1) @ OHIO STATE (3-4-1) – Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go
Ohio State is coming into this game off of a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Louisville on Tuesday, while Indiana is in their usual clean form. The first game of the conference season is important for every team, but this game looms larger for the Buckeyes, who are giving up nearly two goals per contest. Coach John Bluem and the Buckeyes tend to overachieve in Big Ten play, but it just doesn?t seem like they have the pieces this year with the departures of consistent All-Big Ten performers GK Matt Lampson and centerback David Tiemstra, especially if I continue to keep goal scoring pace with star forward Chris Hegngi (0 G, 1 A) from my couch.

Indiana is a program that can often times make up for some goals against stats with their overall talent or a superstar up top, but so far this year the Hoosiers have defended very well, allowing .57 goals per game. Goalkeeper Luis Soffner seems like he is in his ninth season at Indiana; in reality the fifth-year senior has improved every year and is a solid goalie, if not elite, which is all the Hoosiers need to be successful. Senior Caleb Konstanski is a versatile role player for the Hoosiers who will be counted on for leadership, intangibles, and scrappy goals such as last weekend's game winner. The only concern for Indiana is if they are leaning too heavily on Eriq Zavaleta (6 G) to produce in a line-up littered with talent.
Prediction: Indiana 3, Ohio State 1

MICHIGAN (2-4) @ No. 21 NORTHWESTERN (5-0-2) Sunday at 4 PM ET
The Wolverines will take on the defending Big Ten champions in Evanston where they will try to snap a 16-game regular season unbeaten streak for the Wildcats dating back to last year. Michigan took two hard-fought defeats to undefeated, ranked opponents, Marquette and Notre Dame, last weekend so their record may not be indicative of how they finish this year. They challenged themselves out of conference, now they need to find a way to get some results.

For Northwestern, you know about Miller in goal and the strength they have through the center of the field as Kevin Egan pointed out, but for them to repeat, it is paramount that the unsung guys such as Scott Lakin, Grant Wilson (who quietly leads the Big Ten with four assists) and Eric Weberman (1 G, 3 A) continue to contribute as they have done at a high level thus far. Freshman Joey Calistri (4 G) will also have to prove he can score against Big Ten defenses.
Prediction:Northwestern 2, Michigan 0

MICHIGAN STATE (2-5-1) vs. Western Michigan (6-1) Friday at 5 PM ET
The Spartans are the only Big Ten team that has to wait another week for conference play and could desperately use a win against a tough in-state foe this weekend. Michigan State is a proud program, a ?sum is greater than the parts? team, so expect them to compete all year led by Kevin Cope, Domenic Barone and Wake Forest transfer Luke Norman.
Prediction: Michigan State 1, Western Michigan 0

The past indicates that goalkeeping and defense could decide the title, the present has Indiana and Northwestern as heavy favorites, but the future is yet to be determined with a sleeper or two always seeming to emerge and contend in the end. The Big Ten race will begin to take shape this weekend in what should be an exciting season of soccer.

About Cody Stanley contributor Cody Stanley is a former captain of the Northwestern men's soccer team. He'll be offering his weekly previews of Big Ten men's soccer this season