Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
5:00
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A big Monday looms with spring football wraps and spring game recaps. So I won't have a mailbag that day. But here's a full one for today:

Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.

Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.

I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.


Aaron from Pittsburgh writes: Good ol' Tim Beckman is the B1G coach on the hottest hot seat, according to you guys. I fully understand this -- one conference win in two years, blah, blah, blah. But I honestly have some form of empathy for the man. He inherited a Ron Zook team so devoid of depth and talent that I think Year 1 should not be credited against Beckman's resume. Illinois isn't a powerhouse in the first place, so as long as Beckman's Illini don't regress in 2014, I think he might get one more year. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.


Jason L. from Kansas City, Mo., writes: What's your take on Indiana replacing 2 games with South Florida with 2 games with Florida International? Doesn't this go against what B1G commissioner Jim Delany has stated that he wants (B1G teams scheduling tougher opponents)?

Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.

The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.


Sam C. from Fargo, N.D., writes: Hey, BB, I was just thinking about the Gophers and recruiting and how one of the best in the nation is right here in our home state in Jashon Cornell. Is it a dream for me to think we have any shot of landing him? Getting Jeff Jones was nice, but even in the last couple of weeks no one thought we would get him, saying that he was gonna go to the SEC. Just wondering what your thoughts are. Thanks!

Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.


Rodney from Grantville, Pa., writes: I'm obviously excited about PSU hiring James Franklin, but is it clouding my judgment? He did a fantastic job at Vandy, and his first 100 days at PSU have been great, so why are so many saying we can't do well his first year? I personally see 9-3 being doable and 10-2 not out of the question. 7-5 at the worst. The coaches are touting a more aggressive defense and better special teams, which was probably our biggest issues last year. The offensive line is obviously our Achilles' heel, but there are ways to work around that and the offense only needs to score more than the defense allows. ... So what am I missing?

Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.
The NFL's affinity for bigger, longer cornerbacks might be a recent trend, but the size debate is nothing new for players who lack it, such as Nebraska's Josh Mitchell.

"People are always going to question my size," Mitchell told ESPN.com "I don't think its so much for me to say anything about it as much as it is to show. I just try to go out there and show that the size doesn't affect my game."

He showed a lot in his most recent performance, against Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound Mitchell had his best game as a Husker, recording an interception and a fumble recovery, both in Bulldogs territory. Both takeaways led to Nebraska touchdowns in a 24-19 victory.

Those in Husker Country hope the bowl victory springboards a team striving to break through the four-loss ceiling and capture a Big Ten championship. Mitchell sees the game as a catalyst.

"That was really important for me," he said. "It set me up for the next season. Coming off that game, I feel like my confidence was at an all-time high."

No kidding. Here's what Mitchell tweeted three weeks after the game:



Mitchell has never struggled to express himself -- "I talk a lot," he said -- but chattiness and confidence are different things. He didn't always have the latter, at least when the lights shined brightest.

The Corona, Calif., native started eight games in 2012 but recorded only one interception, against FCS Idaho State. Before the bowl breakout, Mitchell wasn't involved in a takeaway last season. Nebraska's defense struggled with them, recording just 18, second-fewest in the Big Ten and tied for 95th nationally.

Boosting the takeaway total is a chief goal for the Blackshirts this coming season.

"We have a faster, more explosive group," Mitchell said. "I feel like if we get more guys flying around, we'll create more turnovers. That's one of my goals. I don't have too many in my career, and I think that's just from playing nervous.

"If I can play with more confidence, I can make more plays."

After playing alongside All-Big Ten corners such as Alfonzo Dennard and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Mitchell wants to be Nebraska's top cover man this season, matching up against opponents' best receivers. He has connected well with new secondary coach Charlton Warren and spent much of the spring working on press technique, a strength for any elite corner.

[+] EnlargeJosh Mitchell
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell said his "confidence was at an all-time high" after he had two takeaways in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia.
He also is taking a greater leadership role in the secondary alongside safety Corey Cooper, a fellow senior.

"Very instinctive, plays the ball very well," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Mitchell. "He's a good football player and a guy I think is going to have a big senior year for us. Love the way he competes.

"He brings great enthusiasm to the field and really adds a lot to our defense."

Pelini notes that Mitchell is getting bigger this offseason. But the two-time academic All-Big Ten selection is smart and realistic about his limits.

He would like to play his final season between 170-175 pounds.

"Of course I want to become bigger and stronger," he said. "I just don't want to get to the point where that’s where all my focus is and I start becoming stiff and losing speed. I rely on speed and footwork.

"I don't have a huge frame, so I don't want to push it too far."

Mitchell's size always might be the first thing people notice about him. If his senior season at Nebraska goes as planned, it won't be the only thing.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
12:00
PM ET
I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: "Cover for me." Number 2: "Oh, good idea, Boss!" Number 3: "It was like that when I got here."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
5:00
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Prime-time schedule angst? Oh, there's plenty. The floor is yours.

Follow us.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWill Melvin Gordon's Heisman chances be affected by the lack of prime-time games in November?
Jackie from NYC writes: I think the biggest loser in the prime-time schedule is Melvin Gordon. We already know he's likely to split carries with Corey Clement, and now he's not going to get the chance to really put on a show in primetime during Big Ten season. Am I right? How does the schedule affect his Heisman chances?

Adam Rittenberg: That's a fair question, Jackie. Gordon undoubtedly would benefit from another prime-time game or two in November, especially if he's among the leaders for the Heisman. The good news is he has a terrific opportunity right away to make a national statement in the opener against LSU. The Tigers are consistently one of the nation's top defenses, and if Gordon has a big night in Houston, he'll be on the Heisman radar. It will be up to him to stay there with big performances against mostly middling competition until the end of the season, but the LSU game provides a platform for Gordon to make a splash. He could have another pre-Heisman prime-time opportunity if he leads Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship game in Indy, where he had a pretty decent night in 2012.




Danny O. from Davenport, Iowa, writes: The fact Iowa goes a second year in a row without any prime-time games is utterly disgusting. I know people outside of Hawkeye Nation will try and defend this decision by bringing up the the weak schedule, and normally they would be right. My question, however, is how can anyone justify giving Illinois ANY prime-time games, let alone two? If the B1G can make a case for this by giving in to Urban Meyer's whining for more prime-time games and giving them Illinois in one of those slots, certainly Iowa deserves one PT game in the past two years. Am I wrong?

Rittenberg: It's not about deserving, Danny. These are business decisions made by TV programming executives and athletic administrators from each school. Ohio State brings in larger regional and national TV audiences than Iowa, even when it's playing a team like Illinois. If Jim Tressel had wanted more night games, he would have gotten no complaints from the TV folks. So it's more of an Ohio State-Iowa issue than an Illinois-Iowa issue.

Iowa has been more conservative about night games, stating a preference about having one or two per year, not four or five. Athletic director Gary Barta said in 2012, "On our campus, one is fine. I don't know that we'll go to two. I'm confident it wouldn't go beyond that." If you combine that preference with an underwhelming schedule where the best games are at the end, when weather does enter the equation, you get no night games.




Brian from Magnolia, Texas, writes: Huge Husker fan here excited about all of the prime-time games this year. One question, when will we get to play Indiana? If memory serves correctly, we haven't played them yet and aren't scheduled to play them until at least 2015-16.

Rittenberg: The Huskers don't face Indiana until 2016 -- Oct. 15, to be exact -- when they visit Bloomington. Nebraska initially was set to face Indiana for the first time in Big Ten play on Nov. 14, 2015, but the league expansion and the schedule shuffle that ensued pushed back the meeting.




Brian from Iowa writes: For a long time now, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have supported the B1G unconditionally, even when there has been a perceived league bias towards teams with richer histories. While I would have thought the question ridiculous a year ago, is it possible that Jim Delany's greed will eventually drive fans away? They already have trouble engaging students (future donors) and nothing endears current Big Ten boosters like a night game played at a mediocre stadium in New Jersey.

Rittenberg: Brian, I understand your anger about the prime-time selections, but you might have the wrong target. Jim Delany doesn't make the prime-time schedules. The league's television partners, along with the individual school administrators, are the power players here. Each school has its own preferences and constraints. A lot of things need to match up for a night game to work. If my team is left off the prime-time slate, I'm taking it up with my athletic director. Delany's recent expansion moves have turned off some Big Ten fans and he'll be judged appropriately. But his role in the prime-time schedule isn't as significant as many believe.




Jake from Seattle writes: What is your sense of the NU football team's response to the university's efforts to dissuade them from voting to form a union? Based on what I've read, my gut says the probability the team gets the votes needed to unionize is quite slim. I mean, having your coach and your university (both of which appear to do things the right way as far as D1 sports are concerned) openly against this must be pretty tough. Is your sense that the players are able to separate that voting to collectively bargain is not a referendum on Fitz or the university, but really on how the NCAA unfairly treats college athletes? I admit that I am biased. I think the players voting yes is in their best interest -- as well as the interests of other athletes that will invariably follow.

Rittenberg: Jake, some players might make that separation, but many feel that the debate has turned from national to Northwestern. Kain Colter's testimony at the Chicago NLRB hearing fundamentally shifted the focus from the NCAA to Northwestern. It led to a favorable ruling for Colter and CAPA, but it turned off some of his former teammates. Northwestern also thought the initial campaign was national, not local. Keep in mind that the Northwestern union ruling would apply only to private schools, which represent a small fraction of the FBS. My sense is they'll vote no, but I've been wrong on pretty much everything regarding this story.
Last week at this time, you learned the six prime-time games to appear on ABC/ESPN this fall. Now the Big Ten Network is up to bat.

BTN has selected six games to appear in prime time this fall. They are ...

Sept. 13

Penn State at Rutgers, 8 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesNew to the league, Kyle Flood and Rutgers will be featured prominently in the Big Ten's prime time schedule.
Sept. 27

Cincinnati at Ohio State, 6 p.m. ET
Illinois at Nebraska, 9 p.m. ET

Oct. 4

Michigan at Rutgers, 7 p.m. ET

Oct. 18

Nebraska at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m. ET

Nov. 15

Michigan State at Maryland, 8 p.m. ET

*Kickoff time set at a later date

For those who missed them, here are the ABC/ESPN prime-time selections:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOne of the league's new and entertaining rivalries, Northwester and Nebraska will meet under the lights this season.
Here's the breakdown of Big Ten prime-time games by team:

Ohio State: 4 (three home, one road)
Nebraska: 4 (two home, two road)
Penn State: 3 (two road, one home)
Michigan State: 2 (one home, one road)
Rutgers: 2 (two home)
Michigan: 2 (one home, one road)
Illinois: 2 (two road)
Northwestern: 1 (home)
Maryland: 1 (home)

Additional Big Ten-controlled prime-time games could be announced in the coming weeks.

More notes:

  • The MSU-Maryland game means the Big Ten will have at least two prime-time games after Nov. 1. The league previously avoided such games based on the preference of its members, not a conference-wide policy, as you've probably been led to believe. Additional November prime-time games could be announced, so stay tuned. Also remember that the Big Ten controls only games played at its stadiums, so if your team plays a road or neutral-site nonconference game, hang tight if it hasn't been announced.
  • Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin don't appear on the Big Ten's prime-time schedule. Iowa fans undoubtedly will be disappointed with no Big Ten prime-time games for the second consecutive season, as the Hawkeyes are a legitimate contender in the West Division. The problem likely is a schedule with the two most appealing games -- Wisconsin and Nebraska -- at the very end, when weather is a bigger factor. The Black Friday game against Nebraska has consistently been a noon ET ABC national broadcast, a spot not worth relinquishing. Still, I wouldn't want to be athletic director Gary Barta today. Wisconsin faces a similar issue as its top home games -- Nebraska and Minnesota -- come at the end of the season. Although it would have been great to see Nebraska-Wisconsin under the lights again, the Nov. 15 date likely prevented it. Indiana had three home prime-time games last year and has been a frequent night-game participant in recent years. Purdue gets the Notre Dame game, but its chances for an additional prime-time contest were hurt by last year's 1-11 clunker.
  • Not surprisingly, both new Big Ten members receive prime-time home games this fall. Rutgers will play its first two Big Ten home contests -- against Penn State and Michigan -- under the lights, while Maryland hosts the defending Big Ten champs in mid-November. "As new members, they're thrilled," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com.
  • Remember, this list and the ESPN/ABC list contain only games controlled by the Big Ten (i.e. in Big Ten stadiums) Additional night games involving Big Ten teams include Wisconsin-LSU in Houston (Aug. 30, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN), Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), Purdue-Notre Dame in Indianapolis (Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) and Nebraska at Fresno State (Sept. 13, 10:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network). The kickoff time for Rutgers' opener Aug. 28 against Washington State hasn't been set, but it will be a night game.
  • While Iowa and Wisconsin fans likely won't be pleased with the list, Ohio State and Nebraska supporters are celebrating. Urban Meyer's desire for more prime-time games is clearly paying off with three home contests and four total to date. Nebraska will play nearly half of its regular-season games at night after playing just one such contest last year. After day games against Florida Atlantic and McNeese State to open the year, the Huskers play five consecutive night games between Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 (they have an open week Oct. 11). I really like the Nebraska-Northwestern game at night. It has been one of the more entertaining games since the Huskers joined the league, as all three matchups have been decided by three points or fewer.
  • This year's prime-time schedule contains only one date, Oct. 4, where both BTN and ABC/ESPN are airing games at the same time. That night, Nebraska visits Michigan State on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 and Michigan visits Rutgers on BTN. There were two such dates last year (Sept. 7 and Sept. 14).
  • Rudner said of the prime-time slate, "The process this year was about as smooth as we've had in the last seven years. Once you get to the point of recognizing the value and importance of prime time, then it becomes fairly easy to get approvals [from schools]."

OK, that's a lot to digest. Thoughts on the prime-time schedule? Send 'em here.
Last week, in response to a mailbag question from reader and Rutgers fan Ed, I came up with a hot-seat ranking for all the coaches in the Big Ten.

That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.

BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?

AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.

As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.

BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini is 58-24 as coach of Nebraska.
AR: Fact. I'm not sure where the pro-Pelini push is coming from. Does a bowl win and some Twitter fun with @FauxPelini really change anything? Nebraska has been a bigger national story during its spring game the past two seasons than when the games actually count. While it's nice to this side of Pelini, the only thing that matters is winning more games and getting Nebraska that elusive conference championship.

BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.

BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?

AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.

BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
12:00
PM ET
Monday couldn't come soon enough for Chicago sports fans after a weekend of bad.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:00
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Mario + Easter = Awesome.
  • Urban Meyer recently acknowledged that he knew, once safety Christian Bryant went down with an injury last year, that "there was a chance that we wouldn't be able to go play for a national title."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
PM ET
It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

ESPN 300: Top Big Ten targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
11:45
AM ET
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The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.

DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16



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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?
The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- An hour after the spring game ended on Saturday, Jeff Jamrog still looked tired as he stood in the lobby of the Nebraska practice facility, down one story and across an enclosed bridge from the football nerve center.

Jamrog clutched a bundle of papers, held tight in his right arm three hours prior as the assistant athletic director for football operations walked alongside cat-cradling Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to lead the team out of its locker room for the most unusual Tunnel Walk ever.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
AP Photo/The Journal-Star/Francis GardlerIt's been an entertaining spring for Bo Pelini, his cat and his team.
I visited briefly with Jamrog about the entertaining antics of the afternoon, which included a goal-post throwing contest between Pelini and flamboyant wideout Kenny Bell and a marriage proposal by recently departed offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles to former Nebraska soccer player Emma Stevens amidst a punt, pass and kick competition between ex-football players.

“If you’ve got any more ideas...,” said Jamrog, a former Division II head coach, Nebraska assistant and ex-Husker walk-on- turned-academic-All-American.

Just call him the Idea Man. The actual mastermind of this cat-themed offseason remains a secret between Pelini, his players and staff. It began with a Twitter bang by Pelini during the BCS title game and picked up steam on the recruiting trail.

When asked where the ideas were born to pull the mask off the old, frowning coach to reveal this fun and open side, they all say it just happened naturally.

It’s something that’s always been there,” Bell said.

Perhaps. You can bet, though, just about anything outside the box of this normally buttoned-up program passed the desk of Jamrog, who promoted Twitter handles of I-back Ameer Abdullah and linebacker Josh Banderas while explaining practice drills during breaks in the Saturday scrimmage.

The script was likely detailed in that bundle of papers.

Pelini said he nixed an idea to wear a sweater, a la his popular alter-ego. I’d like to know what else didn’t make the cut.

Regardless, keep it up, within reason. Even if the cat humor has run its course, continue to find ways to engage this fan base. Memorial Stadium on Saturday held a crowd of 61,772, most of whom paid $10 plus parking to watch a circus-like scrimmage.

Nebraska fans are hungry to see the human side of their coach and players. They’re more hungry, of course, for the next championship, but the past 3 ˝ months -- on the heels of a difficult finish to the 2013 regular season -- have provided a nice diversion.

We’ve seen Pelini reunite a U.S. Army sergeant with his wife and support basketball coach Tim Miles, who was ejected in Nebraska’s return to the NCAA tournament last month.

This spring, Pelini opened practices to the media. He said he’ll likely keep it up in August. He answered all questions in a thoughtful manner. He joked on Saturday about his dogs’ reaction to the cat stunt. He teased Bell, who schooled the coach in the goal-post throwing contest, over the receiver’s poor form.

Clearly, Pelini and the people close to him have made an effort turned the page from last season, stained by the coach’s post-Thanksgiving outbursts on the field and in the press conference after Iowa beat Nebraska on senior day.

“I’m not doing anything really different,” Pelini said in response to a question on Saturday about the lighter mood around his team.

If it feels different, fine, he said, but that’s not his intention.

“We’re trying to make sure we handle our business and enjoy the game,” Bell said. “You’ve gotta remember, football’s fun.

“You can forget that with all the crap you’ve got to deal with sometimes.”

But will all of the fun and goodwill matter to the football-watching public next fall, when the spotlight shines so much more brightly? Will we even remember this new-look Bo if the Huskers play poorly at home against Miami or fail to win the Big Ten West?

The answer to both: Probably not.

Still, Pelini sets the tone for the Huskers, inside the locker room and out. If he’s more comfortable living under the microscope, his players might be, too. That could help on the field in the fall.

It’s an idea.

If you’ve got any others, Jamrog is ready to listen.

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