Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:

 

Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.

It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.


Alex from New Orleans writes: Brian, I know there's been a lot of talk about Michigan's struggles from last year, and how they might continue to struggle again this year. Rightfully so. But rather than talk about the team's floor and how far it will sink, as so many people want to do, what do you think Michigan's ceiling is as a team this year? Let's just say everything comes together from the O-Line to the Pass Rush. They've got two very good coordinators, and a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A lot of young talent, yes, but talent nonetheless. Jabrill Peppers, though a freshman, may not be of this world. I know this team won't go undefeated, but at the same time, I don't think there's one game on the team's schedule that it can't win. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.

But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: Should the Illini erect a Dick Butkus statue on the opposite side of Memorial Stadium from the iconic Red Grange statue? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.


David L. from Chicago writes: Last week, Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, asked who wouldn't make the Playoff in an imaginary world where every major conference produced one undefeated team, using Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor as examples. Great question, but I want to add a wrinkle to it: What if Ohio State, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor go undefeated and Alabama has one loss. Who are the four playoff teams then? (remember the media loves the SEC).

Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.

Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.


Chris from Castle Rock, Colo., writes: Why do you suppose Iowa running backs (namely Mark Weisman) were left off the Doak Walker Award watch list? Is this a way of tricking the AIRBHG for another season?

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
12:00
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseason. Earlier we took a look at the teams in the East Division. Now, here’s what the West Division teams have been up to this summer.

Illinois Fightin Illini raise money with "Lift for Life." Iowa Hawkeyes do the work for a children's hospital. Minnesota Golden Gophers reveal how Mitch Leidner jumps so high. Nebraska Cornhuskers Bo knows tweeting amusement parks on 4th of July. Northwestern Wildcats team build with Navy SEAL-like workout. Purdue Boilermakers Jesse Schmidt's summer internship. Wisconsin Badgers cool down at pool party.  

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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The season of media days is in full swing, with the SEC in the books, the ACC wrapping on Monday, the Big 12 underway, and the Pac-12 set to start on Wednesday. The Big Ten, of course, is scheduled for next week in Chicago. It's never too early to answer questions, though. Keep them coming here and to me. I'll be back soon for more.


Mitch Sherman: I like what I've seen so far from James Franklin, but he's yet to coach a game in Happy Valley. It's all about attitude and recruiting, and that's great. Still, the hardships of probation are difficult to shake. And even with the reduction in sanctions, Penn State still faces a climb to return to the top tier of the Big Ten, let alone the national elite. The presence of Christian Hackenberg during this era of transition helps mightily, but I think the Nittany Lions face some difficult times before the resurgence can start.

As for Michigan, yeah, sure, the depth is better. With Brady Hoke in his fourth season, that's expected. Hoke has largely recruited well. The problems involve player development and a lack of offensive innovation since Denard Robinson stopped improvising. The Wolverines remain way too green on the offensive line, and questions at quarterback have not been answered. Other than three tough road trips, the schedule sets up well. But yes, if this year looks like the second half of last season, the coach has reason to worry.

 





Mitch Sherman: I don't, but any time after that, I could see it. Ultimately, as we all know, money drives the playoff, like everything in big-time college athletics. And the more money the new postseason generates, the louder the calls will grow to expand the thing and create more opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise.

Five years is about the right amount of time to test the four-team format. To change it before 2019 would not give this system the time it needs. We learned long before the BCS era that every season brings a new set of potential controversies. In some seasons, like 2013, a two-team playoff provided a better solution than would a four-team system. More often, the four-team approach would have been more effective in crowing a champ.

The momentum for an eight-team playoff will grow with the every season that provides controversy in the selection of four teams. Expect the calls for a revision to get loud in at least two of the first five seasons. After that, the system is ripe for expansion.

 





Mitch Sherman: Well, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a sophomore, so at worst, you need only fear three years of inconsistent play, but I understand the concern. You're suffering from a condition that resulted from watching Nebraska over the past four years. Its quarterback play under Taylor Martinez was anything but consistent, and Armstrong, as an eight-game starter, extended the trend, throwing eight interceptions and nine touchdowns on 52-percent passing.

I think you'll be pleased, though, with Armstrong's improvement this fall. My takeaway from the spring is that he's set to play much more consistently. Armstrong possesses all the intangibles for which the Huskers search at quarterback. The same could not always be said about his predecessor.

As for Johnny Stanton, he has to beat out Ryker Fyfe before the redshirt freshman can think about taking over the top spot. At this stage of their development, it would take a meltdown by Armstrong for Bo Pelini and Tim Beck to make a change. But things can change quickly in September, especially once the Huskers hit that stretch of five consecutive night games.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
5:00
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The weather feels like fall already in Columbus. The only thing missing is a football game, but at least we have some Twitter questions to bring us one day closer to the season. Be sure to follow me here to get a jump on the next mailbag.

Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.

Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.

Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..

Big Ten lunch links

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
12:00
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If anybody needs me this weekend, you can find me here. First, let's rock out to these links:
The move toward stronger nonconference schedules by the Big Ten and other leagues is already yielding benefits for fans. As teams gear up to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, several high-profile intersectional future matchups have emerged, the latest of them including Michigan-Oklahoma in 2025-26 and USC-Alabama in 2016.

That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?

The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.

"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."

It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.

They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.

"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."

For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."

Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.

While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996.

"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.

"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."

There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.

Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.

"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."

The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?

While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.

But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.

"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."

It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.

"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."

Big Ten lunch links

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
12:00
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Better Big Ten Bane: Braxton Miller or Shilique Calhoun?
The moment you all have waited for has finally arrived. Nothing creates quite the angst and anticipation among Big Ten blog readers like the announcement of kickoff times and TV plans for the first few weeks of the upcoming season.

The announcement comes your way a little later than normal, but it's here! Stop everything you're doing immediately!

As a reminder, these are only games taking place in Big Ten stadiums. Kick times and TV plans for road games already have been announced by the leagues controlling those contests. Also, Big Ten-controlled prime-time games also have been announced and won't appear in this list.

OK, here's the list of new announcements ...

Aug. 30

Appalachian State at Michigan, noon ET, ESPN2
Indiana State at Indiana, noon ET, ESPN News
Youngstown State at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Northern Iowa at Iowa, noon ET, BTN
Western Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPNU
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
California at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional (ESPN2 in outer markets)
James Madison at Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 6

Akron at Penn State, noon ET, ABC regional (ESPN or ESPN2 in outer markets)
Western Kentucky at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Central Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPN News
McNeese State at Nebraska, noon ET, ESPNU
Western Illinois at Wisconsin, noon ET, BTN
Howard at Rutgers, noon ET, BTN
Ball State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Middle Tennessee at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Northern Illinois at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 13

West Virginia at Maryland, noon ET, BTN, Noon EDT
Kent State at Ohio State, noon ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Miami (Ohio) at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Iowa State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Few of you like the noon ET (11 a.m. CT) kickoffs but they're a reality in the Big Ten. We're seeing more variety in kickoff times with BTN and other broadcast platforms.

Northwestern once again gets later time slots after playing its first six games in the late afternoon or evening in 2013. Minnesota also gets afternoon or evening kickoffs for at least its first three games (Eastern Illinois and TCU are the others). Maryland and Rutgers both make their BTN debuts against FCS opponents.

The small group of games on Sept. 13 is due to five non-league Big Ten road games and three teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- having open weeks.

There you have it. Mark those calendars.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
12:00
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Every pitch is grooved for the links.
  • Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash weighs in on the progress of the defense and his relationship with Luke Fickell.
  • There was already plenty of attention on Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones before he was named to a preseason watch list.
  • James Franklin provided some insight on a pair of injuries Penn State is dealing with during the offseason, updating the progress for Miles Diffenbach and Ben Kline.
  • Maryland is trying to use LeBron James' decision to go home to its advantage in recruiting.
  • The jump to the Big Ten has produced a bump in ticket prices for Rutgers and Maryland.
  • Another hot ticket: Nebraska's visit to Fresno State is generating excitement for both fan bases.
  • Loren Tate writes that academic standards at Illinois are part of the reason the program is falling behind competitively.
  • An in-depth look at Northwestern asks if the program is really trending upward.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
5:00
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Howdy. My journey to the World Cup is over, and it is time to really get rolling on the Big Ten blog. This is my first time with the mailbag, so thanks for taking it easy on me. I'm expecting more heat the next time around and questions are accepted any time on Twitter, so follow me right here.

Austin Ward: That would certainly provide an interesting test case for how the selection committee views the Big Ten, and in some ways a playoff appearance likely would not come down to what Iowa itself had accomplished. The Hawkeyes really don't have true high-profile games outside of the league to make a big statement, which could be a problem in this scenario as the strength of schedule starts to play a more significant factor. That doesn't mean wins over Iowa State or on the road against Pittsburgh should be overlooked, but Iowa might be counting more on Wisconsin or Nebraska to have been impressive throughout the year before that closing two-game stretch at the end of the regular season to help give the Hawkeyes a bit more credit for what doesn't appear like that grueling of a schedule. Chances are, this season a one-loss Iowa team with a loss to Maryland would probably be on the outside of the top-four spots.

Austin Ward: For projecting just one upcoming season, historical performance in terms of wins and losses probably has limited usefulness. That should come as no surprise considering all the numerous factors that go into making a team successful during a given season, from the composition of the roster, to injuries, lucky or unlucky bounces and everything else that make the game so unpredictable and fun to watch year after year. But in a broader sense, a program's all-time record I think does have value in understanding which teams are most likely to be annual contenders or at least primed to bounce back if some rough patches have come along. Teams like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, for example, have won a lot of games because they have huge fan bases that bring in money, traditionally have had recruiting areas that sustain them and invest their resources in ensuring a product that wins over time. That doesn't mean in each individual season they are guaranteed to win at a championship level, but long term I would think there is more evidence to suggest the chances of it happening are pretty high.

Austin Ward: See, I told you guys that you were taking it easy on me for the debut mailbag. The conference takes over the national spotlight on July 28-29 in Chicago, and the whole Big Ten blog crew will be in attendance for wall-to-wall coverage. In fact, we are all so excited that we have already started previewing the hot topics and burning questions for every team in the league. It feels like it's been forever since there was live football to cover, and though doing a bunch of interviews isn't quite the same as being in a stadium, at least the game will be a topic of conversation again. The countdown is on..

The SEC has to be first with everything and kicked off its media days extravaganza earlier Monday in Alabama. Never mind that the season doesn't start until late August.

Big Ten media days are still two weeks away in Chicago, but we're here to get you ready. This series lists three of the pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, and the possible answers.

Illinois is first up in the proverbial hot seat. In addition to coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are bringing offensive tackle Simon Cvijanovic, tight end Jon Davis and defensive tackle Austin Teitsma.

1. What's the plan/timetable for the quarterback competition?

The starting job technically remains open as Wes Lunt, Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey will continue to compete in camp. Beckman said in April that he wants the probable starter to start receiving more reps when the team begins two-a-day practices. Lunt seemed to have the edge for much of the spring and boasts the strongest arm, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit seems to be high on his development. O'Toole's experience keeps him in the mix. Bailey is a tremendous athlete but must show improvement as a passer to remain in the race. Expect to see some separation by about Aug. 10.

2. Who must step up on defense for the unit to improve?

It starts with the front seven as Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in rush yards allowed (238.6 yards per game). The Illini lose top linebacker Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, who played the Leo position, transferred to Louisiana Tech. Beckman praised the play of T.J. Neal coming out of the spring, and he forms a potentially strong tandem with Mason Monheim. The line is a mix of veterans who need to blossom such as Teitsma and Kenny Nelson, and newcomers like Jihad Ward, Paul James and Joe Fotu, who must make an immediate impact.

3. What will it take for Beckman to leave the hot seat and return for a fourth season?

This isn't a new question -- it has been asked throughout the offseason -- but it will undoubtedly come up during media days as Beckman will be a popular choice as the Big Ten coach on the hottest seat. Illinois AD Mike Thomas has said the Illini need to win more going forward, but has wisely avoided specific numbers for this season. The big debate seems to be whether Beckman could survive at 5-7 -- a third consecutive bowl-less season -- or if Illinois needs to reach the six-win plateau and qualify for postseason play. Beckman and the players likely won't speculate on what it will take to prevent a coaching change, although they'll address a schedule featuring several tough road games (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Big Ten lunch links

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
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Genießen Sie die Mittags links.
Last week, we took a look at the criteria that made up the average Big Ten champion. This week, we're taking a look at the preseason projections that come from our friends over at ESPN Stats & Info.

Most of the numbers here were built off our preseason Football Power Index (FPI), and ESPN Stats & Info plans to update the information during the season as teams' identities become clearer from week-to-week.

We'll have the East Division on Tuesday, but here are the preseason odds, projections and numbers for the West:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Strength of schedule: 58

Projected overall record: 5.47 wins, 6.54 losses

Projected conference record: 2.73 wins, 5.27 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 0.2 percent

Three interesting games: vs. Purdue -- 76.7 percent predicted chance to win (win by 11.2 points); at Ohio State -- 5.2 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 25 points); vs. Minnesota - 54.8 percent predicted chance to win (win by 1.8 points)

Synopsis: Illinois is the favorite to win three of its four nonconference games, but it gets a bit dicey after that. The Illini are favored over Purdue and Minnesota, but the best shot it has at winning another Big Ten game -- at least according to Stats & Info -- is against Penn State. The Illini have a 38.9 percent shot at winning there.






Iowa Hawkeyes

Strength of schedule: 59

Projected overall record: 7.96 wins, 4.27 losses

Projected conference record: 4.85 wins, 3.15 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 7.8 percent

Three interesting games: at Pitt -- 43.6 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 2.5 points); at Maryland -- 42.4 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 2.9 points); vs. Nebraska -- 61.2 percent predicted chance to win (win by 4.4 points)

Synopsis: The Hawkeyes definitely seem to be a difficult team to figure out when it comes to the stats. They're favored against Nebraska but are underdogs to Maryland and Pitt -- which, yes, is a little head-scratching. In another key matchup, Iowa is predicted to beat Iowa State by 10.2 points.






Minnesota Golden Gophers

Strength of schedule: 53

Projected overall record: 5.48 wins, 6.53 losses

Projected conference record: 2.72 wins, 5.28 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 0.4 percent

Three interesting games: vs. Northwestern -- 46.3 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 1.4 points); at Illinois -- 45.2 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 1.8 points); vs. Iowa -- 37.8 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 4.8 points)

Synopsis: The numbers certainly don't like the Gophers. They're favored in just one conference game -- against Purdue -- and Stats & Info doesn't give them better than a 15 percent chance to beat Michigan, Ohio State or Wisconsin.






Nebraska Cornhuskers

Strength of schedule: 64

Projected overall record: 7.61 wins, 4.53 losses

Projected conference record: 4.57 wins, 3.43 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 4.5 percent

Three interesting games: vs. Miami (Fla.) -- 47.7 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 1 point); at Northwestern -- 47.74 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 1 point); at Wisconsin -- 27.6 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 9.2 points)

Synopsis: For one of the experts' favorites to win the division, its Stats & Info odds of winning the conference sure seem low. That being said, these numbers will be updated every week -- so it stands to reason these will change in the Huskers' favor in the future. If they don't? Saddle up for a disappointing season.






Northwestern Wildcats

Strength of schedule: 49

Projected overall record: 6.59 games, 5.50 losses

Projected conference record: 3.96 wins, 4.04 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 2.6 percent

Three interesting games: vs. Nebraska -- 52.6 percent predicted chance to win (win by 1 point); at Iowa -- 33.4 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 6.6 points); at Notre Dame -- 28.2 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 8.9 points)

Synopsis: When the Wildcats are underdogs, all of the projected scores are within nine points of one another. As a matter of fact, regardless of the favorite, all but one game (Western Illinois) is projected to be decided by less than 11 points. Close games didn't work out well for the Wildcats last season but, if these projected spreads are to be believed, Northwestern should have a chance to make up for that this season.






Purdue Boilermakers

Strength of schedule: 57

Projected overall record: 3.56 wins, 8.44 losses

Projected conference record: 1.29 wins, 6.71 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 0 percent

Three interesting games: vs. Central Michigan -- 55.2 percent predicted chance to win (win by 2 points); at Illinois -- 23.3 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 11.2 points); vs. Northwestern -- 24.3 predicted chance to win (lose by 10.8 points)

Synopsis: Of the 129 teams that were rated, only 10 were ranked lower than Purdue. It's clear the Boilermakers have a lot of issues, and they weren't given better than a 1-in-4 shot to win any of their given conference games. But at least they're favored in their first two games, against Western Michigan and Central Michigan.






Wisconsin Badgers

Strength of schedule: 63

Projected overall record: 9.29 wins, 3.23 losses

Projected conference record: 5.89 wins, 2.11 losses

Odds of winning the Big Ten: 21.9 percent

Three interesting games: vs. LSU (neutral field) -- 36.3 percent predicted chance to win (lose by 4.5 points); vs. Nebraska -- 72.4 percent predicted chance to win (win by 9.2 points); at Iowa -- 54.1 percent predicted chance to win (win by 1.6 points)

Synopsis: Sure, LSU is favored in the season opener. But, after that, ESPN Stats & Info has the Badgers favored in every other game -- and, with the exception of the Iowa contest, they're the favorites by at least 62 percent. Wisconsin was also given a 0.96 percent chance to win out, which sounds low but means the Badgers are the team with the 12th-highest odds to win out. (Florida State is No. 1 -- by more than 27 percentage points over the No. 2 -- with 40.33 percent.)

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