Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end, 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last year. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.
But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?
“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.
“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”
The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.
There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).
Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.
But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.
Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.
- The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
- After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
- USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
- Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
- Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
- The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
- What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
- Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
- Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
- Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
- Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
- As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
- Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
- Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
There's so much to look forward to, including the return of stars like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Then again, we already know what those guys can do. I'm really curious to watch some players perform either for the first time or in new roles. Here are nine players I'll really be paying close attention to in Week 1:
Tanner McEvoy, QB, Wisconsin: We saw McEvoy make a switch to safety last year and end up doing very well then, so we know he's athletic with good instincts for the game. But we've never seen him at quarterback at this level. Will the 6-foot-6 signal-caller's quickness and mobility bring a new dimension to the Badgers' offense? And can he handle LSU's defense? Will we see some option? Can't wait to find out.
J.T. Barrett, QB, and Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Barrett will naturally be in a white-hot spotlight as he makes his first career start in place of the injured Braxton Miller. But don't forget the Buckeyes also have to replace the ultra-productive Carlos Hyde, and Elliott gets first crack at it. He broke his wrist during fall practice but is expected to be ready against Navy.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: Diggs is not a new player by any means, but he's new to the Big Ten. And he hasn't seen the field since the middle of last year, when he broke his leg. By reputation and talent, he could be the league's best receiver.
Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Another new-to-you guy here, James led the nation in rushing after a month last season before getting hurt. He's back and could see a heavy workload Thursday night against Washington State.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: The subject of one of the oddest recruiting sagas you'll ever see, McDowell could prove to be well worth the headache. He won't start Friday against Jacksonville State but figures to see a lot of playing time. "Malik's had a very good camp for a freshman," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "He's firm inside, he doesn't get knocked off the ball ... and uses his hands really well. I think he'll be an outstanding player for us."
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois: Can Lunt be the savior not only for Illini football but also for coach Tim Beckman's job security? That's a lot to put on a player, particularly one who hasn't seen much meaningful action since the middle of 2012. But he has the talent to be a perfect fit in Illinois' spread offense. "Just being around Wes, he's calm and collected," Beckman said. "He's been there and had an opportunity to play as a freshman at Oklahoma State. You can see an air of confidence in him."
The toughest part of predicting the order of finish is figuring out the jumble atop the West. I think Nebraska has the most talent but the hardest schedule, while Wisconsin and Iowa are pretty equal. In the end, I see the Badgers as a team that will continue to improve throughout the course of the year and will benefit from its backloaded schedule. I think Gary Andersen's team beats Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, making up for a pair of early conference losses and winning the division tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes to set up a rematch of the inaugural Big Ten championship game versus Michigan State.
With Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the East basically explains itself. The Spartans are the new favorite … or, depending on your point of view, remain the easy favorite. A new defensive coordinator in Indiana gives me hope that the Hoosiers' offense marching downfield won't just be a futile exercise, and Rutgers? Well, maybe next year, kid. The West is much, much trickier -- and the three top teams all have their own question marks. What kind of passing offense and front seven will Wisconsin have? Can Iowa overcome three departed linebackers? How's Nebraska's secondary? I have more faith in Tommy Armstrong than Tanner McEvoy, and I'm picking Randy Gregory for the B1G defensive player of the year. So, while it's a toss-up, I'm still comfortable sticking with Nebraska.
It's never easy making the won-loss records match up and I'm sure I'll be wrong about a lot of this. I see the parity in the West Division playing out as Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will beat up on one another. It's not easy to run the table in league play two years in a row, but Ohio State did it in 2012 and 2013 and Michigan State will repeat in 2013 and 2014. I see Indiana squeaking into a bowl game and Illinois falling just shy. Ohio State starts off strong but stumbles twice in league play, while new league members Maryland and Rutgers both go through some growing pains in their Big Ten debuts.
Injuries happen. But when they happen in August, injuries jumble predicted standings. Since we first ranked the Big Ten teams early this month, much has changed. The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pushed Michigan State, for me, past the Buckeyes. And in the West Division, Nebraska's key defensive losses -- linebacker Michael Rose and nickel cornerback Charles Jackson are out for the year with injuries -- knocked the Huskers down a notch to third. The best candidate for team most likely to drive its fans crazy? How about Iowa. I've got the Hawkeyes with three Big Ten losses -- at Maryland, at Minnesota and to Northwestern -- with November wins over Wisconsin and the Nebraska. Look for Notre Dame to go 3-0 against the Big Ten. And curious about the lone wins for Rutgers and Purdue? I'm taking the Scarlet Knights over Penn State and the Boilermakers to beat Northwestern.
With just two horses to pick from and one now dealing with a significant injury at the game's most important position, handicapping the East was a relatively straightforward proposition. Good luck with the West, though, since that battle has the potential to go down to the final weekend with multiple teams fighting for a berth in the title game. With each potential candidate having some minor flaws to pick on, trying to figure out which might be most easily overcome is the biggest chore heading into the opener, but Wisconsin's dynamic combination of tailbacks should allow it to weather any growing pains at quarterback once the conference season begins. It won't, however, be enough to get past the Spartans for the league crown as Mark Dantonio's program is set to go back to back once it gets past a wounded Ohio State on Nov. 8 for the East title.
Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.
That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.
On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?
And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.
Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.
But it’s about more than money.
Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.
“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.
His program receives $2 million for the game.
Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.
These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.
Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.
Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?
Keep thinking big, Big Ten.
One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…
- Linebacker Jake Ryan, a Michigan captain in 2013, supports the decision of coach Brady Hoke to postpone an announcement this year until the end of the season. Derrick Green is the Wolverines’ top running back.
- Keep an eye on Rutgers tight end Tyler Croft. Washington State will be watching him.
- Michigan State’s first opponent, Jacksonville State, might provide a preview for the Spartans’ second foe.
- Braxton Miller had surgery. And it went well.
- Maryland features depth at running back.
- Expectations soar for Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Keys for Penn State in Ireland.
- How to measure progress at Purdue this fall.
- The long offseason is almost over for Northwestern.
- One night last season changed everything for David Cobb.
- Iowa running back Damon Bullock, bypassed last year, has worked his way back in line for carries.
- A key for Illinois? Develop a few dominant defensive linemen.
- Nebraska expects a big year from punter Sam Foltz.
- Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, younger brother of J.J., is set to help the Badgers at multiple spots.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.
Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.
Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.
Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
@BennettESPN B1G lost lots of defensive star power (dennard, shazier, borland, hageman, bullough). What 4-5 guys step up to fill conf. void?— Keith Glaser (@keithcg) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: The strength on defense throughout the league right now is on the defensive line and at end in particular with Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Andre Monroe, etc... The Big Ten definitely took a big hit at linebacker, with guys like Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Iowa's senior trio all moving on after last season. I'm looking forward to seeing who steps up at that position and expect some new stars to emerge at places like Michigan State (Ed Davis, maybe Riley Bullough), Ohio State (Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan), Iowa (Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry) and Wisconsin (Vince Biegel).
@BennettESPN is alleged choice of McEvoy as WIS QB have to do with the potential weakness at WR? No one open, make plays with feet?— Steve Moon (@moonraker717) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: I don't think it has too do much with the questions at receiver. Head coach Gary Andersen has made no secret of his preference for mobile quarterbacks, something we talked about before he ever coached a game at Wisconsin. I believe Andersen really wanted Tanner McEvoy to win the job because he has a far superior ability to make plays with his feet than incumbent starter Joel Stave. I just wonder if giving McEvoy his first FBS exposure as a quarterback against LSU is the best move, but there is also a good chance Andersen will play both guys on Saturday, anyway.
Brian Bennett: Michigan would likely have to climb over 7-to-10 teams to get into either major Top 25, so the Wolverines would need to win in impressive blowout fashion and benefit from some upsets. But this question is a good way to remind us all that we shouldn't really worry, or even pay much attention to, the polls. They mean nothing now, other than a possible subconscious influence on the College Football Playoff committee members. All that matters is what the selection committee thinks, and their first set of weekly rankings won't come out until late October. I still think the idea of a weekly Top 25 from a committee primarily charged with picking the four best teams is silly and unnecessary. But if you're going to fret over any set of rankings, make it those.
Sam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes: What has to happen for Illinois to be the darkhorse team in the West Division? Do you see any possible way it could happen?
Brian Bennett: It's probably a stretch to think Illinois can actually contend for a division title, even in the wide open, wild wild West. But stranger things have happened, and I do think the Illini can make a bowl game this season if things break right. Of course, it's all about that defense and whether coordinator Tim Banks can get the group to stop the run. The addition of some junior college players like Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu should help, and that side of the ball is more mature now. I expect the offense to remain very good, especially with strong-armed Wes Lunt at quarterback. This is a team that scored 32 points on Wisconsin and 35 against Ohio State last season, so even a return to mediocrity on defense could make Illinois a tough out.
KyleS from Columbia, South Carolina, writes: I'm surprised you picked Rutgers only winning 4 games for this upcoming season. I know you were a blogger that followed Rutgers when they played in the Big East. Luckily for me when Rutgers wins 6+ games, I will be able to send you another email to say... I told you so.
Brian Bennett: Now is the time for confidence and optimism. I'm not sure how having covered Rutgers previously is supposed to influence my prediction for this season, but if the Scarlet Knights do somehow manage to win six or more games against that schedule, by all means write me back and crow about it. Just know that I now have your e-mail address, too.
Rich from Omaha, Nebraska, writes: Brian: Nebraska will be 2014's Auburn. Their O-line is much better than people realize. They have the best backfield in the Big Ten, especially now, unfortunately. Their defensive line and linebackers will be the best rated units by the end of the season statistically. And they won't turn it over 5 times when the beat an overrated Michigan State in East Lansing. No one outside of Nebraska sees it coming. Last year, I thought they might win 9. This year, they can win them all. Save this post and you'll realize in November, this is was not some homer drinking the Kool-Aid.
Brian Bennett: Yes, people are feeling great about their teams. I'm looking forward to all the caterwauling from all 14 fan bases Saturday afternoon after their team's first failed third down. It's almost here. Enjoy all the ups and downs.
That's what Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises basically said after Braxton Miller's injury. He annually conducts the only thing close to a preseason Big Ten poll by asking beat writers around the league to pick their order of finish for the season.
When that poll came out in July, Ohio State was the overwhelming favorite over defending champion Michigan State, earning 19 of a possible 29 votes. But Lesmerises asked the writers to vote again after learning Miller was lost for the season. And what a difference that news made.
In the new poll, released earlier today, 22 of 25 voters (four from the original poll didn't respond to his request) now pick Michigan State as the Big Ten champion. Ohio State received just one vote, while Nebraska and Michigan tallied one each as well.
It's no big surprise, as the Buckeyes' odds to win the league and the national title have plummeted in sports books since the Miller news broke. But now we have something close to an official poll telling us that the Spartans are now your 2014 Big Ten favorite. As some would argue they should have been all along.
With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:
1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.
The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.
2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.
3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.
4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.
"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."
- Expectations have tumbled for Ohio State since Braxton Miller's injury.
- An unproven set of receivers is ready to step up for Rutgers.
- Indiana enters a crossroads season.
- Lawrence Thomas, a former can't-miss recruit, is still looking for his breakthrough at Michigan State. Ten predictions for the Spartans in 2014.
- Devin Gardner has matured and looks ready to lead Michigan this fall. Season predictions for the Wolverines.
- Some key questions for Penn State as the season approaches.
- A pair of Maryland regulars face assault charges.
- Ameer Abdullah is beyond ready for his final go-round with Nebraska. The 2014 season could be different for the Cornhuskers, but Tom Shatel says he'll believe it when he sees it.
- Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love has come on strong after an honest talk with head coach Gary Andersen this offseason. Year 2 of the Andersen era should look a lot different than last season, Tom Oates writes.
- Trevor Siemian has stepped forward as Northwestern's leader.
- Can the Iowa passing game make significant progress?
- A look back at Minnesota's upset of Nebraska last year and how it can help the Gophers going forward.
- Tim Beckman's seat is undeniably warm entering the 2014 season.
- Purdue looks for a fresh start.
Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg).
Let's begin ...
I'm your bagman today. Season's less than a week away. Horses like hay, OK? Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg). Let's begin ...
Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Michael. The immediate response is to say Michigan State beating Oregon on the road. Oregon is a popular pick to make the playoff. It has a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Marcus Mariota and plays in one of the loudest, craziest, most hostile environments -- at least for the road team -- in college football. A MSU win would be huge both for the Spartans and the Big Ten. But you can't discount the Wisconsin-LSU game for this simple reason: It's against the SEC. The Big Ten's reputation issues stem in large part because of the SEC's success and the Big Ten's inability to beat the SEC in big games. The two leagues are richer and more popular (by far) than the others. So a win against the SEC, in essentially a road game in Houston, would be big for Wisconsin and the Big Ten. I'll ultimately go with Michigan State beating Oregon, but not by much. Both games are huge for the league.
@ESPNRittenberg With the reputation of the Big Ten being what it is, which non-con game is the most critical for the conference to win?— Michael Blum (@MichaelBlum3) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: To be clear, Justin is referring to Nebraska, not Northwestern. I think the rankings aren't based mainly on a perceived talent differential. Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar talent, and you can make a case the 2014 Huskers will be the more talented team as Wisconsin says goodbye to an exceptional senior class. But Wisconsin has had a slightly better track record than Nebraska in the past 15 years. The Badgers have won league championships and always seem to be in the title mix. Nebraska has been close under Bo Pelini, but can't get past the four-loss thing. The big difference between the teams, regardless of preseason ranking, is the schedule. Nebraska plays a division crossover at Michigan State. Wisconsin misses Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The Badgers also host Nebraska, which also must visit Iowa and a Northwestern team it has struggled to beat the last two years.
@ESPNRittenberg I see a lot of preseason rankings having Wisconsin ahead of NU do u think it has more to do with NU's past season or talent?— Justin (@SsGSmittyJ) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: There's virtually no chance he'll be back, Jeff. Melvin Gordon returned this year with the understanding that it would be his last as a Badger. He knows it and the coaches know it. Perhaps a major injury would cause him to return, but even then -- and perhaps because of an injury -- he likely would want to begin his pro career, given the short shelf-life for running backs in the NFL. Gordon wants to lead Wisconsin to the next level and hopes to do it this season. He'll obviously be disappointed if the Badgers don't win the Big Ten and/or make the playoff. But he also has to think about his future, which should begin in the NFL in 2015.
@ESPNRittenberg if UW has a good year, maybe 10-2, but Gordon doesn't win the heisman, any chance he comes back? Bama would be on '15 sched— Heff Jurda (@JeffHurdaCow) August 22, 2014
"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."
One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.
"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."
Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."
"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."
Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."
That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.
"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."
We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.
- An Indiana wide receiver was suspended after he got involved in an early-morning scuffle.
- Maryland kicker Brad Craddock is taking his game up a notch.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is doing more pre-snap reads now and, surprisingly, says he never read a "mike" (or middle linebacker) before Doug Nussmeier showed up.
- Michigan State has sympathy for Braxton Miller. The Spartans named their captains -- Kurtis Drummond, Travis Jackson and Shilique Calhoun -- as well as a pair of defensive starters.
- Ohio State believes it can still win the Big Ten championship without Miller.
- James Franklin was a hit at his first Penn State radio show.
- Rutgers got a commitment from Paul James' younger brother.
- The combo of Wes Lunt and Bill Cubit makes for an intriguing team at Illinois.
- Dallas Clark sizes up the latest crop of Iowa tight ends.
- Minnesota's left tackle and top returning wide receiver are ailing right now.
- A final camp stock report on Nebraska.
- Northwestern says it has better team unity, but will that lead to more wins?
- A Purdue season preview.
- Vonte Jackson's career is over, Wisconsin will go with a freshman kicker and more Badgers notes.
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
@AWardESPN I have seen some say Miller will be back in 15. Is it crazy 2 think OSU would bench the future for another year w/Braxton next yr— Craig Flack (@CraigFlack1987) August 20, 2014
Austin Ward: There's no doubt Ohio State could be facing one of the more interesting quarterback situations in recent memory if Miller completely heals and sticks with his pronounced intentions of returning after a redshirt season. First things first, J.T. Barrett (or Cardale Jones) will have plenty to do to prove they are capable of replacing the void left by a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. But I don't think the Buckeyes will look at it as putting off the future for another year as much as embracing the window to win a championship and making the most of it that year. A fully healthy Miller is among the most valuable players in college football, and if he elects to return, he would be playing behind a veteran offensive line, handing off to a deep, experienced group of tailbacks and throwing to a crop of receivers that have been among coach Urban Meyer's top priorities in recruiting -- with what could be a nasty defense on the other side of the ball for Ohio State. Titles are hard to win, and it's difficult at this point to envision any scenario where the Buckeyes wouldn't want Miller to chase it.
@AWardESPN 1 opinion may b that Brax loss may b beneficial.More abt him.Barret will use more play makers & not try 2 b the show.Thoughts?— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) August 20, 2014
Austin Ward: There is an element of truth to that, but Ohio State was already trying to shift Miller away from carrying the entire load for the offense and becoming more of a distributor heading into his senior season. Now the Buckeyes just figure to be installing a guy for whom that sort of role comes more naturally. Miller was supposed to be more dangerous this season because of all those weapons around him, and while his ability to elude pressure and scramble for extra yards is invaluable, Barrett may not need to do that as often if he gets the ball out as quickly as the coaching staff has indicated he can. He'll also have the benefit of all that added talent at the skill positions, which could put him in great position to hit the ground running leading the attack for the Buckeyes.
@AWardESPN could a two Qb system really work at Wisconsin or would it be best for them to settle with one and stick with their choice?— Lucas Capistrant (@LCapistrant1) August 20, 2014
Austin Ward: Hey, why not three? Typically, I still lean toward the school of thought that rolling with one quarterback is the way to go, but there are always exceptions. As Florida proved under Urban Meyer with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, if the two guys provide different sets of skills and don't let ego get in the way, that approach can work. I don't doubt at all that a former Meyer assistant would be aware of the potential benefits and have an idea how to manage the rotation, and Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy each do bring something unique to the table for the Badgers. If the two of them are truly as neck-and-neck as it has often sounded, I don't think it's a stretch to see a rotation working at Wisconsin -- particularly since either guy will have Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement around to make their lives easier.
@AWardESPN Will MSU continue to be a defense first team with the emergence of Cook?— Aaron Bobroff (@asbobroff) August 20, 2014
Austin Ward: As long as Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are around, it's safe to assume the Spartans will continue to make the defense their top emphasis. They proved a year ago that the scheme, attitude and work ethic of the Michigan State program is more valuable than the individual talent, and there's no reason to think that won't continue even as they replace some valuable veteran contributors. However, it won't hurt them at all to have a more dangerous offense to complement that unit, and it's reasonable to expect big strides will be made now that Connor Cook has nearly a full season of experience and an entire offseason as the No. 1 guy at quarterback under his belt. If already proven running back Jeremy Langford and Michigan State's group of receivers can make similar strides as Cook did even just within last season, the Spartans might start being known as a team that can hurt opponents offensively -- while still wreaking havoc with their defense.
News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.
Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
- Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
- Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
- Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
- Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
- Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
- Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
- Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
- Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
- Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
- Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
- Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
- Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
- Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
- Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
- Barrett, Ohio State's new top quarterback, will answer the call, according to his high school coach. Meanwhile, Miller's potential return in 2015 could help the Buckeyes with a top QB prospect. And the injury serves as a blow to the entire Big Ten.
- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was in midseason form for a scrimmage this week.
- Michigan looks set to start true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle, a sure sign of the urgency to upgrade the offensive line.
- What Miller's injury means to Penn State.
- Indiana's 3-4 defense features a versatile group of linebackers.
- Maryland is one of the first schools to announce that it will honor all scholarships until graduation.
- Helmet cameras offer a new perspective at Rutgers.
- Maxx Williams might be the next great Gopher tight end.
- Northwestern looks for contributions from four freshmen.
- Answering questions about Illinois.
- Purdue's Appleby remains confident in role as backup.
- Tackle Rob Havenstein is the unchallenged leader of the Wisconsin offense.
- Dreaming of what might be at stake as Iowa hosts Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving.
- Nebraska's Fyfe makes a strong move to earn a scholarship.
- A Penn State tradition is gone.