Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
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.
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.
The Wildcats didn't exactly look like a team in crisis.
They've endured a lot in the past 10 months, from a season-crippling Big Ten losing streak to the potentially locker room splintering unionization campaign with no resolution. The latest blow arrived Wednesday, as star running back Venric Mark announced he would transfer, the day after he oozed optimism about the 2014 season. To make things worse, Northwestern also learned leading receiver Christian Jones would miss the season with a left knee injury.
Wednesday's news sparked doom-and-gloom forecasts among fans and media members, but there were no dark clouds above the Wildcats as they went through their workout.
Fitzgerald provided few details about Mark's departure other than confirming that the running back could have remained on the team but chose to transfer. It's unclear whether Mark would have faced additional playing-time discipline beyond the initial two games if he decided to stay.
Mark left the team's off-site training camp Wednesday morning and the team learned of his departure after practice that night.
"I don't think many people knew about it, if anyone knew about it," senior safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "It was definitely a tough loss. It was a family member that our guys knew [and] love. It's kind of sad to see him go."
Campbell spoke to Mark, who told him that he was "going through some things at home" and needed to be closer to his family in Houston. Mark hopes to play this season but might face several hurdles to be eligible. He has one course to complete this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.
"Like I told him and his mom, we'll help him in any way we can," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see where that goes. That's out of my control. ... It's an unfortunate part of college football, but it happens. The challenge, quite frankly, is on him. We move on. The program moves on. The challenge is always on the individuals."
Northwestern likes its depth both at running back and wide receiver despite the losses of Mark and Jones. Veteran Treyvon Green leads the running back group, but two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, are expected to play this fall, Fitzgerald said. Northwestern also has experience at receiver with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater, the USC transfer who finally looks ready to blossom.
The biggest void could be at punt returner, where Mark earned All-America honors in 2012. Campbell and wideout Mike McHugh both practiced catching punts Thursday. Northwestern lacked big-play ability both on offense and special teams last season, two spots where Mark could have helped.
While the Wildcats seemingly have faced more adversity than most teams in the offseason, Fitzgerald isn't concerned about the cumulative effects.
"Externally, it would seem like it has been maybe overwhelming, but internally I think it’s a lot different," Fitzgerald said. "... I read somewhere that Nebraska lost a couple guys. It's tough stuff, but that's why you recruit guys, that's why you coach 'em up.
"That injury or that circumstance is really tough for a guy, but it's another man's opportunity. It's their job to step up, and I know our guys will."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:
2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien
Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell
Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.
Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200
Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190
Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?
Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.
Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.
Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.
What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.
All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.
Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.
They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons
Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins
Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
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.
Mark's transfer leaves more questions than answers at this point. The team announced last week that he would be suspended for the first two games this fall for violating an unspecified team policy. Mark learned of the suspension in June and appealed it, and while he called it "shocking" while speaking with reporters Tuesday, he also accepted it.
"Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts really bad," Mark said Tuesday after practice. "But there's no point in pouting. I'm going to embrace it."
New developments that surfaced after Mark's media appearance and before Wednesday night's announcement contributed to Mark's ultimate decision, ESPN.com has learned. Whether those developments were additional violations/discipline from the school or something unrelated -- like a family issue -- aren't known at this point.
"Northwestern has been an indescribable experience for me," Mark said in a prepared statement. "It has been my home for four years, and has molded me into the man I am. I’m one class shy of the Northwestern degree I’ve worked so hard for, and I will graduate. I’m devastated to leave my second home, but life is full of challenges and I’ve been presented with another one. Right now this is what is best for me and my family."
Coach Pat Fitzgerald added that Northwestern will miss Mark but that this is "unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him."
It will be interesting to see whether Mark ends up at an FCS school or petitions to play immediately at an FBS program like Houston or Rice.
Mark earned All-America honors as a punt returner and second-team All-Big Ten honors as a running back during a breakout 2012 season, where he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and had two punt-return scores. He missed most of last season with leg injuries but was granted an extra year.
This is a significant loss for Northwestern because of Mark's speed and playmaking ability. But the Wildcats have good depth at running back with Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long, and brought in several talented freshman recruits, including Justin Jackson.
The depth at wide receiver also is good with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, and others. Northwestern figures to be more of a pass-oriented offense with Trevor Siemian as the sole quarterback.
The shock value here is certainly significant, perhaps more so than the actual losses. But Northwestern's offense could use all the weapons it can get after a subpar 2013 season.
Check back for more developments.
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.
"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.
Let's do this ...
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, we know this much: the Pitt game will be easier from a logistical standpoint than the Arizona trip was in 2010. It's a shorter flight, a friendlier kickoff time (it hasn't been set yet, but the Iowa-Arizona game started at 9:41 p.m. Iowa time) and, most likely, better weather (it was 97 degrees at kickoff in Tucson that night). Iowa didn't look ready to play against Arizona and paid a price. I also think the 2010 Wildcats are better than the 2014 Panthers, although Pitt cannot be overlooked. Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, knows Iowa well and will have his team ready to go.
@ESPNRittenberg Adam, could you see Iowa's game at Pitt this year similar to the 2010 Arizona game? Also any chance gameday a comes to IC?— Matt Mackowiak (@mtmackowiak) August 11, 2014
This is a game Iowa cannot overlook. Pitt has an explosive young wide receiver in Tyler Boyd and other weapons. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa comes to the Steel City. This could be a sneaky good matchup, but it's not nearly as scary as the Arizona game, which had letdown written all over it.
As for "GameDay," I have no idea and have zero input on where they go. But potential late-season showdowns against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa has a chance to host.
Tim from Raleigh writes: From my count, the B1G plays 15 non conference games against the power 5 conferences, 5 of which are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 with a few others close (TCU, Mizzou, Miami, Va Tech). How many of these games do we need to win to get the respect of the rest of the NCAA?
Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Tim, as the Big Ten has more riding on nonleague performance than most major conferences. Two games really jump out as perception shapers: Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Michigan State at Oregon. Lose both of these, especially by wide margins, and it might not matter what happens in the other games. The Big Ten is supposed to pick up wins against Miami (Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), so I'm not sure how much credit the league would get. The recent wins against Notre Dame haven't done much to boost the Big Ten's rep.
The league could use some surprising results, like Rutgers or Illinois beating Washington State and Washington on the road, or Indiana knocking off defending SEC champ Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. TCU would be a nice road win for Minnesota and Penn State should get some credit for beating Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in Ireland. You also want to see Michigan take care of Utah, Iowa to beat Pitt on the road, and Northwestern and Maryland to hold serve against Cal and West Virginia, respectively.
But the two nonconference opponents that really pop for the Big Ten are LSU and Oregon. The league needs one of those games.
Adam Rittenberg: Jared, making a third consecutive bowl game (and winning one) is a good start. But I think you're onto something here with setting the minimum bar at one signature win. It's important for Minnesota to get over the hump against Michigan, which has won six straight against the Gophers despite a down period in its history. But it's even more important for the Gophers to finish the 2014 season on a stronger note than they did last fall, when they dropped their final three games (and scored a total of 27 points).
@ESPNRittenberg, what does Minnesota need to do to keep up the optimism around the program? Is beating UW, UM or Iowa a must this year?— Jared Frank (@JarRFrank) August 11, 2014
I look at Minnesota's closing stretch -- Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) as a defining period for Jerry Kill's program. Can these Gophers rise up and beat the big boys, especially those in the West Division? Or is Minnesota still not quite there and belongs in the second tier? You can't go 0-4 to finish the regular season and claim progress, so at least one win in that stretch is critical. Two would show things are definitely headed in the right direction.
Adam Rittenberg: It's crazy that we're talking about this before Franklin coaches his first game at Penn State, but it's a relevant question. Franklin's name came up in several NFL coach searches after the 2013 season. All but one season of his coaching career has taken place in the college ranks -- he coached the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers in 2005 -- and his personality seems to fit better at the college level, where he can shine as a recruiter. But the NFL can be tough to resist, not only from a financial standpoint but a competitive one.
@ESPNRittenberg How long can Penn State fans expect Franklin to stay as the head coach?— A-A-ron (@josh_euphonium) August 11, 2014
It's all about timing, and Franklin needs to boost Penn State's program before he can look at the NFL. I see him staying for at least three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's there longer. He's an ambitious guy but seems like a good fit in State College.