Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

CHICAGO -- Pat Fitzgerald wants to be your friend again, Nebraska fans.

Fitzgerald, the Northwestern coach, said Monday at Big Ten media days that he made a "bad joke" this month in describing Nebraska as a "pretty boring state" while speaking to boosters at a Chicago golf outing.

As you might expect, the comments provoked a variety of responses from fans of the Huskers, including some not fit for print.

"I've learned a lot of hashtags on Twitter," Fitzgerald said.

The coach apologized and said he would "own" the mistake, but that he meant no harm by it. Fitzgerald said he was trying to compliment Nebraska fans on how well they travel. The visitors overtook a large portion of Ryan Field in 2012 as the Huskers came from behind to beat the Wildcats 29-28.

Nebraska visits Northwestern on Oct. 18.

"Our fans need to step up," Fitzgerald said.

Last year in Lincoln, Nebraska beat Northwestern 27-24 on a Hail Mary pass from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired. Asked Monday about how long it took to get over that finish, Fitzgerald quipped: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

The coach said he has spent just two days in the state of Nebraska -- not nearly enough time to form an opinion, though he said his players and staff were treated warmly on trips in 2011 and 2013. Northwestern upset Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in the Huskers' first year of Big Ten play.

Nebraska fans heartily congratulated the Wildcats after their 2011 win, according to Fitzgerald. They did the same last season, said the coach, drawing a laugh.

"It's just a great fan base," Fitzgerald said.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
5:00
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Welcome to another weekend, which means just four more remain until the return of college football. Thanks for all of your questions. Keep them coming and enjoy the latest mailbag:
Mitch Sherman: Derrick Green has battled weight problems previously. He entered camp last season at 240 pounds as the No. 5-rated back in the 2013 recruiting class and rushed for just 270 yards as a true freshman, averaging 3.3 yards per attempt. After the spring, he was reportedly down to 220, definitely a better figure.

It’ll be interesting to see how he looks when practice opens in Ann Arbor on Aug. 4. If Green shows up in great shape, he’s likely the man to beat in the battle for the bulk of the carries. Primary competition comes from fellow sophomore De'Veon Smith.

No doubt, Green is talented and dangerous when his body is right. But some of this remains out of his control. No back could have thrived behind Michigan’s porous offensive line last season. The Wolverines rushed for 125.7 yards per game, the third lowest average in school history. In back-to-back games against Michigan State and Nebraska, the line contributed to 14 sacks of U-M quarterbacks.

If the line doesn’t improve in 2014, Green could open the season in the best shape of his life, and it would matter little.
Mitch Sherman: Well, here it is. In theory, the idea to determine conferences based solely on football and its finances appears intriguing. In practice, it would be a logistical nightmare and destroy many of the sport’s natural alliances.

Still, don’t dismiss such a scenario as complete fantasy. The coming changes in college athletics could be landscape-altering, from the ramifications of the upcoming vote on major-conference autonomy to the court decision in the antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and its inevitable appeals.

It’s hard to imagine that the conferences will cease to exist as we know them. But then again, 10 years ago, who could have imagined the look of the game as we know it today?


Mike in Ashburn, Virginia, writes: If Rutgers beats Penn State, what would that mean for the future of RU football?

Mitch Sherman: Fans of the Scarlet Knights have long circled Sept. 13, when the traditional rivals meet in Piscataway, New Jersey. The game was scheduled in 2009 -- when former PSU assistant Greg Schiano coached Rutgers -- as a nonconference matchup, the first in the series since 1995.

Of course, when Rutgers announced plans to join the Big Ten, it was converted to a league game. Penn State and Rutgers last played in 1995, and the Nittany Lions have won 22 of 24 games in the series. So one victory by the Scarlet Knights over a Penn State program still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions won’t reverse the fortunes of the programs. PSU will still carry momentum in recruiting and possess an edge in areas, even New Jersey, that produce recruiting prospects for both schools.

A win by Rutgers, though, would serve notice that it’s here to play with the big boys in the Big Ten and won’t be pushed aside easily by powers of the league’s East Division -- on the field and in recruiting its fertile home state.
Opening weekend in college football is just five weeks away. Yay. We're we're peeking ahead and breaking down every Big Ten team's 2014 schedule to get you even more geeked up.

Batting third in our series: The Northwestern Wildcats

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Cal (1-11)
Sept. 6: Northern Illinois (12-2)
Sept. 20: Western Illinois (4-8)
Nov. 15: at Notre Dame (9-4)

West Division games

Oct. 4: Wisconsin
Oct. 11: at Minnesota
Oct. 18: Nebraska
Nov. 1: at Iowa
Nov. 22: at Purdue
Nov. 29: Illinois

Crossover games

Sept. 27: at Penn State
Nov. 8: Michigan

No plays

Indiana
Maryland
Michigan State
Ohio State
Rutgers

Gut-check game: Nebraska. The Wildcats stunned the Huskers in Lincoln in their first meeting as Big Ten teams in 2011. But the past two years of this series have left Northwestern shellshocked. Taylor Martinez engineered an epic fourth-quarter comeback in Evanston in 2012, and of course, Nebraska won on that Hail Mary last year. Pat Fitzgerald's team has to find a way to finish off Big Red better this year at home, or else the path to a potential West Division title gets much more difficult.

Trap game: Northern Illinois doesn't have Jordan Lynch anymore, but this is a strong program that has won at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons. The Huskies, who won at Iowa last year, would love nothing more than to beat their in-state neighbors to the East. And Northwestern will be coming off a potential track meet in the opener vs. Cal.

Snoozer: You certainly can't find much fault in Northwestern's nonconference schedule overall. But when the Western Illinois game arrives, we'll definitely be flipping channels.

Noncon challenge: Wildcats fans have been looking forward to playing Notre Dame again since their team pulled off the upset in South Bend in 1995. The game finally arrives this fall, but it won't be in an easy spot. Not only does Northwestern go on the road (albeit a short trip), the game comes right in the middle of November when Big Ten races are at their most intense. In fact, the Cats play Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. No small task, that.

Analysis: Credit goes to Northwestern for once again assembling a challenging schedule. It's one of the few schools willing to play two Power 5 conference teams (or at least the equivalent, in Notre Dame's case) in the same season, and Cal should be improved over last year's disaster. Throw in one of the most dangerous mid-major programs in the country, and that should make for a strong SOS. The Wildcats should be considered a dark horse in the West Division since they can't suffer all the bad luck they experienced in 2013 for a second straight year. But drawing Michigan and Penn State as crossovers is tougher on paper than what fellow West contenders Iowa and Wisconsin face, and looping Notre Dame into that November mix increases the degree of difficulty. Still, if the team can survive the grind, it gets a relatively light finish with Purdue and Illinois. There's a decent chance more will be on the line for this program in the final weeks of 2014 than there was a year ago.
The Big Ten, for whatever reason, does not issue an official preseason predicted order of finish like just about every other league. Luckily, we've got Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com to pick up the slack.

Lesmerises once again has organized an unofficial poll of league beat writers, and the panel of 29 media members have tabbed Ohio State and Wisconsin to win their respective divisions.

Nineteen of the 29 voters picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten title, with nine votes going to Michigan State and one to Nebraska. The West Division breakdown was scattered, as Wisconsin led with 14 votes, but Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern all received support.

The complete breakdown:

East Division

  1. Ohio State, 195 points (23 first-place votes)
  2. Michigan State, 180 points (10)
  3. Michigan, 136 points
  4. Penn State, 105.5 points
  5. Maryland, 84 points
  6. Indiana, 78.5 points
  7. Rutgers, 33 points
West Division
  1. Wisconsin, 183.5 points (15 first-place votes)
  2. Iowa, 173 points (11)
  3. Nebraska, 157.5 points (5)
  4. Northwestern, 112 points (1)
  5. Minnesota, 96.5 points
  6. Illinois, 58 points
  7. Purdue, 31.5 points

(Note that there are more than 29 first-place votes in the divisions because of ties)

Some thoughts:

As has been the case in many preseason publications, Ohio State is a pretty heavy favorite despite Michigan State's success last year. It's interesting, given all the youth on the Buckeyes. Definitely motivational material here for the Spartans. ... Wisconsin has also gotten a lot of hype this offseason in spite of heavy personnel losses and questions in the passing game. Voters obviously like the schedules for both the Badgers and Iowa over Nebraska, which has to play in both Madison and Iowa City. ... Some voters likes a dark horse, picking Northwestern to win the West. The Wildcats do pose an outside threat. ... Not a lot is expected of newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, though the voters like the Terps a good bit more as the Scarlet Knights are picked to finish dead last in the East. ... If you don't like these results, take heart: Not a single writer picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten championship in this same poll a year ago.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Big Ten media days kick off on Monday at the Hilton Chicago. All the other Power 5 conferences will have wrapped up their own media events by then, and each league does things a little bit differently. So today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten change the format of its media days?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

One thing that can be said about Big Ten media days is fans have much more access to it than they do in other leagues. The centerpiece of the two days is Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon, during which fans can listen to a few minutes from every coach, hear a keynote speech from a current player and get autographs from former players. It's a 40-plus-year tradition, and at $110 a plate, a nice moneymaker for the league (because the Big Ten, you know, is pretty cash poor these days).

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJim Delany will speak to the media in Chicago, but not until the end of Big Ten media days.
In part because of that luncheon, and because the conference likes having everybody together, the actual media portion of the event is fairly short. Basically, each coach gets about 15 minutes of podium time on Monday, along with breakout sessions involving them and their players, and then there is a two-hour window on Tuesday morning where everyone is seated at ballroom tables. Compare that to the SEC's mega-media extravaganza that now lasts four days, with a few teams represented each day.

The SEC's format is far too long in my view, but that league certainly monopolizes coverage on those days, and individual teams get more of a spotlight. Now at 14 teams, I'd like to see the Big Ten devote more time to its event. More time to spend with Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, etc. More time to get to know some of the personalities. More time with players and programs who aren't in the spotlight. Not that the Big Ten needs more fans, necessarily, but more media coverage equals more exposure and more attention, which could help everybody in the long run.

My preference is for the conference to add an extra day and split the teams up, either by division or by interest level. You could have them all together on the middle day for the luncheon. This is probably all just inside baseball and I'm not sure how much fans really care. But as the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, its media days should probably follow suit.

Take 2: Mitch Sherman

I'm actually stunned you're taking the time to read this, because who cares, really, what the media thinks about the format of a preseason event to promote the conference? We're likely going to cover this thing regardless of how the Big Ten structures it, so our opinion on the setup is probably the least of anyone's concern. That said, I'll offer my two cents.

I agree with Brian that it ought to be longer. Monday's schedule includes 14 coaches and 42 players crammed into five hours. By mid-afternoon, my head might be spinning so fast that I can't differentiate between Pat Fitzgerald and Urban Meyer. OK, it's not that bad, but you get the picture. This thing is nearly over before it starts. And I'd like to see commissioner Jim Delany open the event with his comments, rather than speak during the final 30 minutes on Monday. By late afternoon, some of our brains are fried to the point that it's difficult to formulate intelligent questions. (Who am I kidding? There's no specific time for that.)

If you're still reading, I've got another suggestion: Every team should bring a quarterback. This year, seven are planned to attend, which is actually pretty good in comparison to some other leagues. QB is the premier position in college football; there's no denying it. I understand not every job is completely settled, so Illinois gets a pass here, though Wes Lunt could have brought the Illini some attention in Chicago. But if you're going to have an event for the media -- is it really for the media, or is that just the name? -- bring the players to whom the media wants to speak. That means, yes, we'd like to see Christian Hackenberg, Jake Rudock, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and even Gary Nova.

I will now dismount my soapbox. Congratulations, or perhaps condolences, if you made it to the end.
Big Ten Media Days is nearly upon us. Just survive the weekend, and you'll get a full dose of coaches and players on Monday and Tuesday. As our time to preview the event winds to an end, here's a fearless forecast of what to expect from the Hilton Chicago:
  • Jim Delany will make news. The Big Ten commissioner almost certainly will not follow the lead of his Big 12 counterpart, Bob Bowlsby, who this week slammed the enforcement arm of the NCAA, saying it pays to cheat in college athletics. But Delany will address tough questions about the game in an up-front manner. He'll discuss the potential ramifications of the upcoming vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to grant autonomy to the five major conferences and the upcoming verdict in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Both events could alter the landscape of college football, which makes the opinion of Delany -- one of the game's top power brokers -- of high interest.
  • An awkward moment or two for the Northwestern players. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats chose to send a trio of seniors to this event. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian are smart guys. They'll be well equipped to answer questions about an offseason like no other at their school, highlighted by a late-April vote of players on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. Still, facing a large media throng, the players will get peppered with questions about the situation and the possibility that its fallout may linger as a distraction at their school for some time.
  • Randy Edsall will end his war of words with the ACC. Highly doubtful that the Maryland coach chooses to fire back at Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who defended the ACC after Edsall said he was pleased to make the jump to coach in a “football conference.” Edsall, speaking at lunch event in Baltimore on July 14, said he was “not in a basketball conference anymore.” In response, Swinney, at ACC Media Days, referenced the Tigers win over Ohio State to end last season in the Orange Bowl. “Aren't they in that conference?” Swinney said. There's not much more to say here, especially for a coach who went 13-24 in three seasons in the ACC. Oh, and who said the Big Ten's not a basketball league?
  • Connor Cook will charm the media. Michigan State's junior quarterback is known as a blue-collar guy, in step with Spartan style, who did just enough last season not to spoil the 13-1 MSU season capped with wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Cook is more than that. And the writers and broadcasters in Chicago may be in for a surprise to meet this quarterback now brimming with confidence as a result of his strong finish to 2013 and a productive offseason. I met Cook recently during the Elite 11 finals, at which he counseled the nation's top prep quarterbacks, and came away impressed with his poise and confidence.
  • Brandon Scherff will get asked to lift something heavy. And politely decline. What else can you expect in the wake of this recent video? Scherff possesses freakish strength. He would likely win a strongest-man competition among all Big Ten players. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis compared Scherff's dominance to former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Davis encountered while coaching at Texas in 2009. A likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Scherff provides a great luxury for the Hawkeyes at left tackle. And if anyone needs help with a suitcase in Chicago, he's your man.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
5:00
PM ET
We're taking more of your mailbag questions from Twitter these days, and we now have individual Twitter handles in addition to the ESPN Big Ten account. Make sure to follow each of us for all your league news. Here is mine.

Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:

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Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.

Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.

I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.


Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...

Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?

Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.


Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?

Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.

The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.

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Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.

As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
12:00
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Guess who's coming to the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on Tuesday in Chicago? Former players.
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:00
PM ET
Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.
Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM ET
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

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

 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.
I admit to jealousy at times when we hear coaches from other conferences talking at their respective media days. If only the Big Ten had personalities like Steve Spurrier, Les Miles and Mike Leach who weren't afraid to say whatever crossed their minds.

Unfortunately, the best zingers and one-liners from Big Ten coaches usually come in the summer when they are speaking to their alumni and other highly supportive crowds. The latest example comes from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Addressing a crowd of fans gathered after a golf outing, Fitzgerald got some pretty good lines in at the expense of Nebraska and Cal coach Sonny Dykes, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Fitzgerald said he wanted to make sure Wildcats fans dominated the stands when Nebraska -- which always brings a big crowd and turned Ryan Field into a sea of red two years ago -- comes to town on Oct. 18 for homecoming.

"It’s a pretty boring state, so they’re really excited to see Chicago,” Fitzgerald said. “I talked to the state senator about putting state troopers out on I-80 [to block them].”

No one keeps Huskers fans from traveling, and Fitzgerald was obviously just joking around. There appeared to be a bit more animosity for Dykes, who accused the Wildcats of faking injuries to slow Cal's hurry-up offense in last year's 44-30 win by Northwestern in Berkeley. The Bears play in Evanston for the Aug. 30 opener.

“The way it went last year,” Fitzgerald said, “I look forward to shaking that coach’s hand after we beat 'em.”

Thanks for providing a nice subplot to that game, Pat. We can only hope that you and other Big Ten coaches saved some of your best material for media days next week.

Big Ten lunch links

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

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

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

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