Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Beginning on Aug. 3, we're counting down the days until the college football season starts with a look at the 25 most interesting people in the sport. Today we look at Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Bo Pelini stood in the lobby of Nebraska's practice facility early on Saturday afternoon, his khaki cargo shorts, white, long-sleeved base layer and gray T-shirt soaked minutes after quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and cornerback Josh Mitchell dumped a bucket of ice water on the coach in the latest execution of the viral craze to support awareness for Lou Gehrig's disease.
His players marched past Pelini to the locker room. Freshman receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, among the few to glance over, examined Pelini from behind, smiled, raised his eyebrows and walked past in silence.
This isn't the Pelini that Pierson-El saw last year from afar, the guy whom the college-football public came to recognize over his first six seasons at Nebraska as a mercurial figure.
By now, you likely know of how Pelini has flipped the script in the past nine months. How he's somehow morphed into a media darling -- this zany coach prone to jokes who strives to embrace social media.
Yes, Pelini's reshaped persona, whether on display with a cat in hand or through a creative uniform unveil, is viewed as fascinating.
Not to Bo, though.
"I find a lot more fascinating things out there than Bo Pelini," the 46-year-old coach said.
His words strike at the heart this matter.
The offseason is winding to a close. Nebraska opens on Aug. 30 against Florida Atlantic after a summer of aggressively pushing ticket sales to preserve the 51-year sellout streak at Memorial Stadium. The Huskers rank No. 22 in the Associated Press preseason poll, their lowest spot to start a season since 2009. More favorable schedules make Wisconsin and Iowa the popular picks over Nebraska to win the Big Ten West.
Pelini won the offseason, for sure, but that's about to matter as much as a touchdown pass in a spring scrimmage. The question, moving forward, is this: Has Nebraska set itself up for a big mess when hardship inevitably hits this fall?
All of the critics -- and Pelini had plenty last season -- figure to line up at the coach's door if Nebraska falls off track in September or October and warm, funny Bo reverts to snarly, irritable Bo.
These past several months have provided plenty of new fodder.
What are they running over there at Nebraska, a football program or a fun house? An unfair commentary, sure, but reality can be that way, especially when social media enters the mix.
It's silly that such discussion exists, but this is the climate that Pelini helped create by changing the narrative with his YouTube videos and Faux Pelini Twitter fun.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who grew up four houses from the Pelini family in Youngstown, Ohio, and has known Bo longer than anyone in Lincoln, said he often grew frustrated that people judged the coach solely from observations on game days.
Pelini needed this offseason, Beck said, to show outsiders a new side of the man players and staff have long known.
"Absolutely," Beck said, "I think it's been great for him. It's been great for our program. I'm happy. I'm proud of him. I think he's done the right thing. Unfortunately, a lot of people still don't see it -- the way he runs the program and the things he stands for.
"It's rare to have people like that in charge."
Evidence suggests that Pelini is ready to handle adversity with more grace.
His most notable setback last year -- the leak of an audio clip in which he was critical of Nebraska fans -- dated to 2011. And his November meltdown after the Huskers' regular-season-ending loss to Iowa came under odd circumstances as speculation about his job security reached a new high.
Since then, he's turned the page.
He opened practices to the media. And when two injuries and a suspension knocked out nearly 30 percent of his starting defense in the first days of practice, Pelini responded with a steady hand.
"I've told myself and the staff that I want to have more fun," Pelini said last week. "Last year was a difficult year. At the end of the day, you can only do so much, but I believe in what we're doing. I believe in how we're doing it.
"Let's face it, it's always going to be hard. There are going to be ups and downs. It's a roller-coaster of emotions sometimes, but you've got to channel it the right way. There are certain things that are in our control and things that aren't. You've got to control the things you can and keep it in perspective."
Pelini said he's no more image conscious than in 2007, when he moved to Nebraska from his position as defensive coordinator at LSU. Asked if he enjoys the small moments more today than seven years ago, Pelini said no.
Still, his willingness to show a new side has helped the Huskers.
"People are talking about our program in a way they wouldn't if some of these things weren't out," said Jeff Jamrog, assistant athletic director for football operations.
Sophomore defensive end Greg McMullen said he's simply pleased to see his coach portrayed as something other than "an evil villain."
Whatever the impact during the season, this is just more fun.
"When you can have fun and get your job done at the same time," McMullen said, "it makes for a better environment."
And so goes the year of Nouveau Bo. Will he dazzle or crash hard? Time will tell, but Pelini, ever polarizing, has again given us reason to watch.
The most popular parody Twitter account in college football boasts 104,000 followers. The mystery man behind Faux Pelini visited with ESPN.com about the experience as a lampoon of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
Where was the idea of Faux Pelini born?
When I first got involved with Twitter, I learned about comedy accounts and parody accounts, and there wasn't a Bo Pelini parody that had any traction. It seemed like there should be, given that this was back in 2010 during the height of what was thought to be his most colorful time as coach. There wasn't a grand design. I started making jokes, and it took off from there.
How have you mastered the art of being funny in relation to Bo as a person and coach?
I pay attention to his demeanor in press conferences, on the sideline, of course, and try to create a caricature, which is just to take over the top little examples of what he does. I take it eight steps further and create this fake character. It takes to an extreme what people think he must be like, although we all know it isn't what he is. I think that's becoming clear now, that he's not this one-dimensional, maniacal character. But Faux Pelini definitely is a one-dimensional, maniacal character. He hates stupid questions. He hates anybody questioning him. He hates anything irritating him.
What can you tell us about your background and connection to Nebraska football?
I grew up in Omaha and went to high school as a hard-core Nebraska fan, watching every game. I listened on the radio. I went to a different [former] Big Eight school. But me as a fan is at the heart of this thing. I'd be watching games anyway, so I might as well be watching them as Faux Pelini and tweeting about them. I'm in Chicago now, but I still have a real connection to the team in that I'm still a huge fan. I'll go to bars or friends' houses in Chicago and tuck away in the corner, doing my tweeting.
We laugh about it, especially with the recent attention it's gotten. It's just so surreal and funny. On one hand, it's a cool thing that has grown and is just fun. On the other hand, it's so bizarre and ridiculous that you have to shake your head at what it even is. There are times when I stop and think about what I'm doing, and it's just odd. It's an odd social-media world that we live in.
Have you ever almost accidentally revealed your identity?
I don't have any examples of technical failures. I'm still waiting for that day to come, which, knowing me and my technical abilities, I'm sure it will come. Sometimes, with friends and family around, they'll talk a little too loudly or openly about it around people who don't know, and I'll start to wonder if the word's getting out.
Do you envision a time where you would want to come out in public?
I haven't really made up my mind to that. I don't have a plan for that. If it happens one day in connection with other [media opportunities], I think it would be fun. But right now, it's just easier to manage without that. It's not that the reveal would be shocking, interesting news to anyone other than people who know me. It's just it's easier for me to manage it without having to deal with that.
Does Faux Pelini have a finite shelf life?
It definitely has a shelf life, an expiration date. I will definitely stop doing it when Bo is no longer with Nebraska. That will be the day that Faux Pelini is no longer. That doesn't mean I won't do something else. I probably would. Maybe it would be on Twitter, maybe not, but I'll be keeping busy with some sort of writing.
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.
If you missed it, the two-time Tribune Silver Football winner, one of the most decorated individuals in Big Ten history and the key to Ohio State's bid for a conference title and a potential run to the College Football Playoffs, left the second practice of a two-a-day session on Monday with what appears to be a new injury to his already surgically-repaired shoulder. A source confirmed to ESPN.com late on Monday that trainers attended to Miller on the field after a throw that the Buckeyes expected to be a barometer of progress as he regained strength in the muscles around his shoulder.
There's no word yet on the severity, but obviously the workout didn't go as planned. The program hasn't confirmed the injury or released any information about medical tests at this point, but it has a previously-scheduled media availability slated for this morning. Stay tuned for more information as the story continues to develop.
As for the rest of the conference?
Depth chart shuffling
- Michigan hasn't finalized its plans in the backfield, but Derrick Green is currently in the top spot at running back.
- Michigan State is moving around some bodies up front after an injury to right guard Connor Kruse.
- As expected, Danny Etling won the quarterback job and will be the starter when Purdue opens the season against Western Michigan.
- Behind Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett has emerged as the backup most capable of moving the offense -- edging ahead of Cardale Jones.
- A cross between a "mad scientist" and a movie character, Bob Shoop impressed his boss at Penn State from the moment he met James Franklin.
- One secret to Steve Longa's success at linebacker for Rutgers? Ritually watching film of Ray Lewis.
- A string of injuries ended the playing career of lineman Nate Clarke, but he's making a quick transition to coaching as a student assistant for Maryland.
- Indiana is trying to keep the ball rolling with recruits.
- Nebraska held a handful of players out of their most recent scrimmage, but there's no reason to be alarmed as the program tries to stay fresh ahead of what could be a taxing September.
- Wes Lunt appears to still be in the lead at quarterback for Illinois, but official word is expected on Wednesday after practice.
- Where can Iowa improve? It could probably start in the red zone.
- In another look at how Northwestern could handle its nonconference schedule, Kevin Trahan asks if the Wildcats should pursue neutral-site games.
- Wisconsin might wind up putting freshman quarterback D.J. Gillins on the field this season after another solid outing in Monday's scrimmage.
- There are plenty of pass-rushers in the well-stocked Big Ten looking to make an impact. Count Minnesota's Theiren Cockran among the defensive ends looking to be "the guy" this season.
OK, enough small talk. Let's dive right into today's Big Ten mailbag.
@ESPN_BigTen @ESPNJoshMoyer other than Gordon & Abdullah, who will/can be a dominant RB in the #B1G ? - Brett May Burn (@B_Mac29) August 18, 2014Josh Moyer: Two names immediately spring to mind: Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Indiana's Tevin Coleman. Langford did pretty darn well in his first year as a starter in 2013, and he can only get better. He didn't carry the ball more than 20 times until Game 6. And, from that point on, he carried the ball at least 21 times in every contest and set a school record by reaching 100 yards in eight straight games. He's the odds-on favorite to once again lead the Big Ten in rushing TDs and, nationally, only four returning tailbacks gained more yards than him last season. Plus, Connor Cook said in the spring that Langford has taken on a much bigger role in the passing game. With Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah taking up most of the spotlight in the B1G, Langford might be one of the most overlooked tailbacks in the nation. Coleman has received a lot of love from the Big Ten blog, but for good reason. He missed the final three games of 2013 with an ankle injury and never received above 20 carries a game -- but still finished with 958 yards. He also averaged 7.3 yards a carry last season and was even able to reel off a 64-yard run against Michigan State. With another offseason and a healthy ankle, the explosive junior has the potential be the Big Ten's surprise tailback this season.
@ESPNJoshMoyer Oregon O vs MSU D is main talking point, but why isn't MSU O vs Oregon D getting more attention? - Colin Dilworth (@Dilworth269) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Let me answer your question with another question, Colin. What game would you prefer to watch: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech or Alabama vs. Oregon? One features the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team; the other features USA Today's No. 37 team vs. No. 80 team. (Last season the Spartans' offense was ranked No. 80 and Oregon's defense was No. 37). In other words, at its heart, strength on strength is just more entertaining. So, naturally, it's going to draw attention away from the other matchup. Still, the other matchup constitutes half the game, so let's take this time to look a bit closer at that "other" battle. Oregon's defense has a better ranking than the Spartans' offense, but there's still a lot at play here. On the surface, the Ducks boast a great run-defense since they allowed just 3.8 yards a carry last season. But there are some potential issues. For one, the two teams that had the most rushing attempts against the Ducks -- Stanford and Arizona State --both wore them down and ended up with wins. Secondly, only three teams in the nation were worse against the run on third down (65.5 percent conversion rate) and only seven teams in the nation were worse at stopping rushing plays at the line of scrimmage (17.8 percent). And, thirdly, Oregon has to replace two good defensive tackles. So you have to think Langford's success inside should have a big impact on the game. In the secondary, Oregon also boasts one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 in cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. So Cook would be wise to avoid him altogether, especially since the Ducks don't have a proven No. 2 CB. So, sure, the Michigan State offense vs. Oregon defense has its own storylines at play. But count me in with the majority. I'm still more looking forward to the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. Can Michigan State crumble the hopes of a Heisman hopeful? Can Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota deflate the aspirations of Spartan Nation just one week into the season? That's just going to be plain fun to watch.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How many wins to start the season will it take for PSU to be ranked. 5-0 headed into Mich or 6-0 headed into OSU week? - Sean Abbott (@sean_e_abbott) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Hey, I dig the optimism, but getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we, Sean? Anyway, I could definitely see Penn State getting some votes and making an appearance around Nos. 24 or 25 if it knocks off Northwestern to go 5-0. But chances are it'll need another quality win -- or at least one that trumps the likes of Akron and UMass -- to really work its way into the top 25. (A reminder: Polls will have little to no bearing on the playoff this season.) A quick start like that is possible, but it won't be easy with three decent opponents. Central Florida has a great secondary and could test Christian Hackenberg with his inexperienced wideouts. Rutgers' defensive line could pose problems for PSU's thin offensive line, which will likely feature two converted defensive tackles at offensive guard. And, even without Venric Mark, Northwestern boasts enough returning starters to pose a problem. A celebration after a 5-0 start might even be a bit premature for Penn State because the stretch immediately afterward is more important. There are no guarantees there: at Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, at Indiana. How PSU fares there might be the key to its season.
@ESPNJoshMoyer My friend is getting married on September 6th, one of the biggest weekend of matchups for the B1G all year. Should I go? - Matthew Milko (@B1Gcast) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Hoo boy, that's a tough one. Important follow-up question: How good of a friend? It's definitely a good week for Big Ten football but mainly due to three matchups: Michigan-Notre Dame, Michigan State-Oregon and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. Also, Northwestern-Northern Illinois might not be bad. But everything else? Hmmm ... how do I put this delicately? Unwatchable garbage (e.g. - Rutgers-Howard, Nebraska-McNeese State, Maryland-USF, etc.). But there might be hope for you, Matthew. The kickoff for the earliest of those three games is 6:30 p.m., so that should at least give you some time to find a TV at the reception. Or, barring a TV (what kind of wedding is this?), give you time to fake the stomach flu. I can only imagine "Dear Abby" would offer the same advice. Or at least she should. Godspeed.
And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
- Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
- Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
- Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
- Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
- Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.
Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.
On to the links:
1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.
2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.
3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.
4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.
5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.
6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.
7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.
- Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell said he had to work as a bartender this summer to keep the lights and water on at his apartment. Huskers defensive tackle Aaron Curry will reportedly transfer to Oklahoma.
- Freshman Rafael Gaglianone and his booming Brazilian leg could take over Wisconsin's field goal duties (which could, sadly, mean an end to my Jack Russell puns).
- The LSU game is key to Melvin Gordon's Heisman hopes, Tom Oates writes. Totally agree. Even with a poor opener, Gordon could get back in the race by piling up yards. But Wisconsin's schedule means the Badgers won't get much national attention for weeks.
- Tracy Claeys is molding a strong defense at Minnesota.
- Five takeaways from Illinois' time at Camp Rantoul.
- Confidence is swelling for Michigan State's passing game. Spartans true freshman Montae Nicholson is already making an impression at cornerback and could possibly play some on offense.
- Ohio State's defensive line appears destined for greatness.
- Penn State is nearly ready to flip the switch and start preparing for UCF. James Franklin is having an effect on every corner of Penn State.
- Rutgers has plenty of big playmakers on offense.
Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.
@mitchsherman I can't decide which is more asinine, winning 8 as a best case, or only winning 3 as a worst case. Awful stuff.- Joe Chamberlin (@realjchamberlin) August 13, 2014
Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.
Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.
Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.
@mitchsherman Is NU "relevant" & "stable" or was Wed's interview just SE realizing he needed to say something this year PRIOR to season?— David (@drhgeronimo) August 14, 2014
Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles.
@mitchsherman they gonna put jabril peppers in the hall of fame during the season or you think they'll wait until after the year?— Nate James (@FortuNateShev) August 15, 2014
We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.
Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).
Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”
That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.
Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.
Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.
I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.
In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.
My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.
Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
- Alabama transfer and current Ohio State Buckeye Chad Lindsay is competing for a starting spot at center.
- Michigan State boasts about seven offensive linemen who can be a part of the rotation, but assistant coach Mark Staten wants more.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
- A closer look at Rutgers' Thursday practice, from the opening song (Jackson 5's "ABC") to highlights of the day.
- Observations from Penn State's practice and who's standing out so far.
- Michigan's Saturday scrimmage will likely have an impact on how the starting offensive line turns out.
- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to play up to his players' intelligence by asking them to be more versatile. The Badgers' freshman class is already starting to make an impression.
- Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
- Who's going to be Minnesota's No. 2 tailback? Good question -- because the Gophers are still trying to figure that out.
- Purdue hasn't named Danny Etling the starting quarterback quite yet. Right now, it's an "equal opportunity" for all the signal-callers.
- Nebraska junior Givens Price might have found a home as the starting right tackle.
- True freshman wideout Mike Dudek is already impressing on-lookers at Illinois' practices, and one teammate called him the "most consistent wide receiver this camp."
- Without three of last season's top linebackers, the Hawkeyes have plenty of questions at the position -- but they also have plenty of depth.
- Our friends over at Grantland previewed the Big Ten.
For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.
But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.
At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.
Congrats to Curtis Samuel and Raekwon McMillan for being the first 2 freshmen to get their black stripes removed! pic.twitter.com/OZg6314sZ9— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 10, 2014
At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.
The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.
Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.
But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.
- Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
- What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
- The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
- A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
- Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
- Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
- Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
- There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
- Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
- Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
- Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
- An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
- Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
- Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
Brian Bennett: I think it would be possible, yes. If Oregon went on to win the Pac-12, then the Big Ten would have a powerful argument for inclusion in the Playoff over the Pac-12 given that its champion beat their champion on the road. Yet it's a little hard to see Ohio State being good enough to win in East Lansing but still losing two other Big Ten games. That could also hurt the Big Ten's overall strength-of-schedule case unless the West Division champ had a great season.
A similar scenario could unfold for Wisconsin. Let's say the Badgers beat LSU in the opener but lose a game in the Big Ten before winning the league title. That should still be enough to get Wisconsin in, assuming LSU has a strong season. The selection committee is going to be looking closely at nonconference games to judge schedule and conference strength, so the Oregon and LSU games are important for everyone in the Big Ten.
Corey from East of Huskerland writes: With the autonomy ruling, and barring the former "Mid Majors" don't overrule the change, how do you think it will impact B1G recruiting deficiencies? For example, since I bleed Husker red, it's widely noted that recruiting kids to Lincoln has it's issues, being so far away from fertile recruiting grounds. Can this change allow teams, like my Huskers, to lessen that gap, lets say, with more abilities to help parents come to the games and so forth? Not only for Nebraska, but for the B1G as a whole.
Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and the answer remains to be seen. One of the items power conference leaders have talked about is covering travel expenses for families to travel to postseason games. But I haven't heard much, if any, talk about paying for families to travel to regular-season contests. That could change, though. A major issue for Nebraska, and many Big Ten teams, is allowing earlier official visits for prospects. Yet as Mitch Sherman noted in this morning's links, other leagues don't necessarily see that in their best interests.
There might be autonomy, but the new system still requires the following level of agreement to pass legislation: A) a 60 percent of the 80-member voting panel and three of the five power conferences, or B) a simple majority and four of the five power conferences. Can the Big Ten convince enough other schools and at least two other conferences to make those recruiting changes? Will there be some horse-trading going on, as some conferences barter to pass their pet projects? It will be fascinating to see how this all shakes out.
Brian Bennett: I don't think it's writing off as much as playing wait and see with the Wolverines. No one is going to pick Michigan to finish ahead of Ohio State and Michigan State in the East Division, not after the Maize and Blue have gone 15-11 the past two seasons. There are still major concerns about the offensive line, and the running game -- outside of the quarterbacks -- has been abysmal of late. Still, as you mentioned, there is plenty of talent on hand, and I expect offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to make a difference. Enough of a difference to be a true Big Ten title contender? I need to see that before I can believe it.
Brian W. from Athens, Ohio, writes: Dontre Wilson was used as a decoy much of last year. with the exit of Philly Brown what do you see as his roll this year?
Brian Bennett: Urban Meyer has said that Dontre Wilson wasn't strong enough last season to block or run between the tackles. "He was a hybrid guy that really wasn't great at anything," Meyer said. So Wilson didn't touch the ball much and was basically a non-factor down the stretch last season for the Buckeyes. And that's OK, because he was a true freshman, after all. Wilson has reportedly put on more than 20 pounds since the end of last season. I think you could see him excel now in that Percy Harvin-type, hybrid-back role where he can do a little bit of everything. Philly Brown is not a great comparison because he developed into a true No. 1 receiver, which Wilson probably never will be. But Wilson could be a very dangerous player if his strength and understanding of the game have now caught up to his elite speed.
Previewing the 2014 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers:
2013 overall record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
Key returnees: Ameer Abdullah, RB; Randy Gregory, DE; Kenny Bell, WR; Corey Cooper, S; Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB.
Key losses: Quincy Enunwa, WR; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB; Ciante Evans, DB; Spencer Long, OG; Jeremiah Sirles, OT
Offense: QB: Tommy Armstrong Jr., Soph., 6-1, 220; RB: Ameer Abdullah, Sr., 5-9, 195; WR: Kenny Bell, Sr., 6-1, 185,; WR: Jamal Turner, Sr., 6-1, 190; WR: Alonzo Moore, Soph, 6-2, 195; OT: Alex Lewis, Jr., 6-6, 290; OT: Zach Sterup, Jr., 6-8, 320; G: Jake Cotton, Sr., 6-6, 305; G: Mike Moudy, Sr., 6-5, 305; C: Mark Pelini, Sr., 6-0, 290; TE: Cethan Carter, Soph., 6-4, 240.
Defense: DE: Randy Gregory, Jr., 6-6, 240; DE: Greg McMullen, Soph., 6-3, 280; DT: Vincent Valentine, Soph., 6-3, 320; DT: Maliek Collins, So., 6-2, 300; LB: David Santos, Jr., 6-0, 225; LB: Josh Banderas, Soph., 6-2, 235; LB: Zaire Anderson, Sr., 5-11, 220; CB: Josh Mitchell, Sr., 5-11, 160; CB: Jonathan Rose, Jr., 6-1, 195; S Nathan Gerry, Soph., 6-2, 205; S: Corey Cooper, Sr., 6-1, 215.
Specialists: K: Drew Brown, Fr.; P: Sam Foltz, Soph.
Biggest question mark: Can Armstrong develop into a top-rate quarterback? He showed flashes of potential after being thrust into the role in 2013 following the loss of Taylor Martinez, including a strong performance in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia. But he also struggled at times with his accuracy. The Huskers appear to be well stocked at most other positions but need consistent play from under center.
Most important game: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin. Nebraska is behind the eight ball when it comes to the schedule, compared to the other West Division contenders. Not only did the Huskers draw a road game at Michigan State as a crossover, they also have to go to Wisconsin and Iowa. There's a good chance Nebraska will have to win this game in Madison to stay in contention for the West title. They didn't fare well the last time they played in Camp Randall, and they gave up 70 points the last time they faced Wisconsin (in the 2012 Big Ten title game).
Upset special: Week 3 at Fresno State. The Bulldogs are a dangerous team and the atmosphere should be wild. Going to Fresno a week before hosting Miami seems to spell trouble.
Key stat: Nebraska is minus-23 in turnover margin the past two seasons combined. Until the Huskers get their turnover problems solved, they're going to have a tough time taking that next step to being a championship team.
What they're wearing: Pelini himself modeled the new Nebraska alternate duds by showing up in full uniform at a team meeting. The Huskers will wear the all-red look on Sept. 27 against Illinois.
Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) can surprise you with some interesting tweets, including his stunning response to Faux Pelini in January and his uniform stunt earlier this month. But don't expect a lot of in-season tweets from the head man. Players to follow include the always fascinating Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80), Abdullah (@Ameerguapo) and Armstrong (@Tommy_Gun4). There's no better sports parody account than the aforementioned Faux Pelini (@FauxPelini), though his tweets are not always family-friendly. And don't forget the team's official account.
They said it: "I think we have depth in areas that is really going to help us be a good football team, and also we saw a lot of young guys last year kind of come of age as the season went on. I'm looking forward to seeing those young men continue to develop into the type of players we feel can win championships at our school. That's what we're after. We're looking for a championship. I think we have the pieces." -- Bo Pelini.
ESPN Stats & Information projections: 7.61 wins
Wise guys over/under: 8 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Nine wins. Rust Cohle would tell you that time is a flat circle and we keep repeating our lives over and over again. It sure feels that way in Lincoln, as Nebraska has gone either 9-4 or 10-4 in all six seasons under Pelini. We're sure as heck not going to bet against the trend.
What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.
Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.
We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.
From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.
Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.
“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”
Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.
How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.
And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?
Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.
So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.
Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.
Around the league ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:
Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?
The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.
Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.
But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.
There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.
Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.
Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.
The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.
Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.
NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.
These aren't predictions or scenarios that are illustrative of the most probable outcomes. They're simply meant to show the potential highs and lows in a season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. Also an important reminder: We're trying to have some fun with these.
Up next are the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Bo Pelini raises both arms in triumph on the field in Indianapolis, with the Big Ten trophy in one hand and his cat in the other. Students sing the alma mater while a choked-up Pelini looks on and Anya the cat meows in unison.
“This one’s for Anya!” Pelini screams into the mic.
It’s an image that winds up on the front page of nearly every sports section in the country. “Nearly purr-fect” reads the headline, as the Huskers lock up one of four playoff spots with a 12-1 record. Pelini sweeps Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and is invited to appear on the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Cat Fancy.
Ameer Abdullah rushes for more than 1,700 yards and 14 TDs en route to beating out Braxton Miller for the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award. Kenny Bell becomes a first-team All-B1G selection and sets school records for career receptions and receiving yards. Defensive end Randy Gregory is the MVP of the Big Ten championship game, as he wrecks the Buckeyes with 3 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles in the 31-21 victory.
Early on in the season, some fans wondered aloud if Nebraska would be able to make it this far. The Cornhuskers needed a last-minute touchdown drive by Tommy Armstrong to edge Fresno State in a 38-35 late-night thriller on Sept. 13. And then came the tough, 20-14 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 4.
But Pelini keeps his players motivated with a "Meow (Re)Mix" music video that goes viral, and that Fresno State contest provides a turning point for Armstrong. He looks like a new quarterback, brimming with confidence, after that career-defining drive in which he converts a trio of third downs during the 75-yard TD march. From then on, the words “poise” and “clutch” are constantly used to describe Armstrong. It becomes a running joke; one blog finds that TV commentators have referred to Armstrong as “clutch” a total of 394 times during the season.
Armstrong helps engineer a 10-point comeback over Wisconsin. And, against Iowa, in the last week of the regular season, he shakes off a would-be sack and finds Abdullah in the flat for a short pass that Abdullah turns into a 60-yard score. The Huskers end up winning by a touchdown.
The pass defense is only mediocre, but the front seven strikes fear into conference opponents. And Gregory compiles at least one sack in every game on his way to conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Those highlights replay throughout the minds of Pelini -- and Anya -- as they accept the Big Ten trophy on a cold December night. Next up is the first round of the College Football Playoff.
And, this time around, no one is counting out the Huskers ...
In some ways, it’s already begun.
Three potential defensive starters go down in the first week of preseason camp -- safety LeRoy Alexander (suspension), nickelback Charles Jackson (knee injury), linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey (torn ACL) -- but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Days before the season, the Huskers lose another starting defensive back to injury -- and Abdullah suffers a minor ankle injury that doesn’t keep him out but still seems to hinder him all season.
The Huskers win their first two games without issue, but that streak ends on the road against Fresno State. Armstrong looks lost and commits three turnovers -- two interceptions, one fumble -- as Nebraska loses by two touchdowns. Then comes the loss to Miami (Fla.). That’s when the murmurs start regarding Armstrong.
Pelini is pestered by questions about trying another signal-caller. But, even among fans, there’s no consensus. Some say to go with Johnny Stanton; others think Ryker Fyfe deserves a shot. Some still believe Armstrong is the guy.
Bo stands behind Armstrong and, although Armstrong delivers a win against Illinois, he’s not convincing. Defenses are beginning to creep up on Abdullah, and Nebraska’s star running back seems as if he’s becoming less effective each week. Couple that in with the fact the patchwork secondary hasn’t been tested outside of Fresno State, and some real concerns remain in spite of the 3-2 start.
Then it all starts to unravel against Michigan State. Armstrong is pulled after two first-half interceptions, and Pelini rotates both Stanton and Fyfe. But neither fares any better. With a quarterback controversy brewing, Pelini cuts his news conference short leading up to the game at Northwestern. Then, after another loss, he skips his next one altogether.
Nebraska beats an overmatched Rutgers and Purdue -- but drops the last three to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Abdullah’s rushing average falls by more than a half-yard compared to last season. Bell fails to gain the necessary yardage to break Johnny Rodgers’ career Nebraska record. And the pass defense is ranked outside of the top 75 in the country.
After the final loss in the regular season, dropping Nebraska to 5-7, Pelini walks straight past the waiting sideline reporter into the tunnel. He trudges right past the security guards, skips the postgame presser, hops into his car and drives off.
And nobody is quite sure if he’s coming back …
"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.
(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)
Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.
Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.
All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.
Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.
From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."
True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."
If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.
Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).
Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.
His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.
"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."
Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.
Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.
IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.
The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.
"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"
Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.
Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...
- A look at how tight end Adam Breneman's injury impacts Penn State this season.
- Nebraska will be without reserve running back Adam Taylor (ankle).
- Ohio State LB Kyle Berger suffers another ACL tear.
- The grind begins this week for Michigan State. The wait for DeAnthony Arnett to make an impact with MSU could be over soon. Arnett came out of the spring feeling great about his progress, telling me, "It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself. I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
- Notes following Maryland's first scrimmage, including the impressive play of running back Brandon Ross.
- This Ohio State practice video is brilliant.
- The latest practice report from Rutgers, which produced no answers about the backup quarterback spot.
- Michigan's offensive line still has a lot of moving parts. The BTN crew weighed in on Michigan's practice on Monday.
- Previewing Indiana.
- Austin Appleby is closing the gap on Danny Etling and keeping Purdue's QB race very much alive.
- Kevin Trahan explains how a dull town in southern Wisconsin is the perfect place for Northwestern to focus on football.
- Illinois' offensive line is coming together these days.
- Marc Morehouse puts Iowa's running back group under the microscope.
- New Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward honors his mom every time he puts on No. 17.
- Wisconsin ends practice with a chipping contest, and coach Gary Andersen hits the mark.
- Minnesota RB Berkley Edwards talks about the advice he has received from his big brother, Braylon.
- Veteran Maryland QB C.J. Brown leads the Terrapins into the Big Ten.
- The best of Robin Williams. RIP.