Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions

How do Big Ten teams combat their geographic disadvantages in recruiting, when many of the best players are in different regions? One of the answers is increasingly becoming satellite camps.

Penn State's James Franklin is the George Washington of this particular idea in the Big Ten. He ruffled some feathers in the South last year when he and some assistants participated in camps at Stetson (Florida) and Georgia State as guest coaches. That got the Nittany Lions exposure and face-to-face contact with prospects in some of the hottest recruiting hotbeds.

Nebraska's new staff under Mike Riley used to do the same type of things when it was at Oregon State, located far away from many prospect pipelines. The Huskers are already planning on adopting the satellite camp idea this summer, most likely in Texas, California, Georgia and Florida.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Michigan is jumping into that game as well under new coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Wolverines have booked two guest-coaching spots in June so far, in Alabama and in Texas. How excited do you think Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin will be to see Jim Harbaugh working camps in their states this summer?

The NCAA prohibits schools from holding camps more than 50 miles from their campus. But as long as the school isn't hosting the camp and its coaches are merely guests at a site, then everything is kosher.

Except, that is, in the SEC, which has a rule that forbids its coaches from working satellite camps. SEC coaches were upset about Franklin's foray last year, and the league made noise about changing the NCAA rule allowing for guest coaches. Boo hoo. Those guys have every other recruiting advantage in the world.

There's really no downside here at all for Big Ten teams entering this realm. It can be extremely helpful for a program like Nebraska, which struggles to get kids to Lincoln for official visits. Even Michigan has to recruit more nationally now because there is less talent in its state, and Harbaugh is going to turn over every stone. Ohio State might be the only Big Ten school that doesn't have to go the satellite camp route, because the Buckeyes have a wealth of talent in Ohio from which to draw and Urban Meyer's recruiting reach extends to pretty much anywhere he wants it to go. But you have to wonder if Meyer might look more seriously at the idea now that the team up North is working down South.

Numbers don't lie. There are simply more and better prospects in the South and in Texas. If you can't move your schools there, then the next best thing is to get as much face time and brand recognition as possible in those areas. The coaches and programs in those regions don't like the invasion, but there is no unfair practice involved here. It's just competition.

I love it. Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan have the right idea. Tell the rest of the league to load up the car. We're going (satellite) camping!

Is there anything better than Big Ten football in the fall?

We think not, which is why we're dreaming of our ultimate Big Ten road trip in 2015. In case you've missed the previous installments, we've been giving our picks for which game we would attend each week if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Time to look at Week 8:

Saturday, Oct. 24

Wisconsin at Illinois
Penn State vs. Maryland
Indiana at Michigan State
Northwestern at Nebraska
Ohio State at Rutgers

Byes: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota Purdue

Austin Ward's pick: Northwestern at Nebraska

By this point there should already be an understanding of where these programs stack up in the West Division, and there probably won’t be huge stakes in the race unless the Wildcats have truly recovered from their recent rough patches and found some consistency on offense. But if the Huskers are going to be a factor, this is a matchup at home it can’t afford to overlook. And for Pat Fitzgerald, taking his team into a tough place to win and pulling out a victory would have value not only in climbing back up in the standings and potentially into the postseason again, but it might have a long-term impact establishing the Wildcats as a threat again.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Ohio State at Rutgers

I’m off the High Points Solutions Stadium, because it’s the closest Ezekiel Elliott or any of Ohio State quarterbacks will get to New York City until December. Maybe Urban Meyer can steer the team bus through Times Square to offer extra motivation for the Buckeyes’ Heisman candidates. Really, this is not a great week of matchups in the Big Ten, and OSU squashed Rutgers 56-17 a year ago. I’m not expecting a compelling game, but I want to see the atmosphere for this in Piscataway, and I’m wondering if Rutgers cast of running backs can penetrate the Ohio State defense. Probably not, but hey, a stopover in New York beckons.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

"Let the rivalry begin." Those were Randy Edsall's words when Maryland pulled off the historic win in State College last year. Don't think Penn State has forgotten that -- or that the Terps refused to shake hands before the game. This might just be turning into a heated new rivalry in the Big Ten, and with this game being in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, I'd expect some Nittany Lions fans to make it closer to a neutral site. Save me a crab cake, and I'll see you there.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

Our choices are thin in Week 8, so I'm going with a matchup that could wind up blossoming into a nice rivalry. Call it what you will right now, but this game is sure to be an interesting one after last season's no-handshake escapade (and don't forget about the pregame scuffle either). The Nittany Lions tried to downplay how they felt after the Terps' 20-19 win, but it's clear they weren't fans of the move. Outside of the theatrics, this could be another close contest -- or at least has less blowout potential than the other games.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
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Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

By this point in our Big Ten ultimate road trip, we'd probably be tired of airplanes, hotel rooms and rental cars. But the football would push us through.

Of course, this in all likelihood won't be our actual 2015 itinerary. Still, we're picking the game each week on the fall schedule that we'd most like to attend, if things like money and time were no issue.

Here's Week 7:

Saturday, Oct. 17

Rutgers at Indiana
Michigan State at Michigan
Nebraska at Minnesota
Iowa at Northwestern
Penn State at Ohio State
Purdue at Wisconsin

Byes: Illinois, Maryland

Dan Murphy's pick: Michigan State at Michigan

No need to leave Ann Arbor this weekend, as the intensity of the Big Ten's best in-state rivalry will be cranked up thanks to the arrival of new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh -- who probably won't be issuing any apologies in the days following this game. "Little brother" has been pounding the Wolverines in recent years. Harbaugh, who is no stranger to beating up his big brother, gets his first crack at the Spartans at home. Michigan hasn't ruled out the possibility of scheduling this game as a rare prime-time kickoff, which would turn this enticing matchup into a can't-miss event.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The Nittany Lions nearly ended the Buckeyes' national title run last season, and you can bet they have been champing at the bit for a rematch. Putting aside the controversy last season, a lot could still be at stake in 2015. PSU has an easy schedule until it heads to the Shoe, and both teams have the potential to be undefeated heading into this. Regardless, one does not simply turn down a chance to visit a venue like Ohio Stadium. This was an easy decision.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska at Minnesota

I'm going north to the Twin Cities as Minnesota attempts to make it three straight wins against Nebraska after going five decades without a victory in this series. The Gophers haven't been home in three weeks; the weather is turning. And Nebraska is, at best, coming down from an emotional high of the biggest home game of the season in Week 6 against the Badgers. This game presents the first chance also for the largely Oregon State-imported staff at Nebraska to match wits against a winning group of established coaches in the Big Ten. You can argue all day about the merits of the two leagues. Bottom line is, they are different beasts, especially as the season reaches its second half. Here arrives a chance for the revamped Huskers to show that they understand the new challenges.

Austin Ward's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The strength of the East Division will be on full display with two matchups featuring the four marquee programs, but James Franklin’s first visit to the Horseshoe with Penn State should provide the most entertainment. The Nittany Lions nearly rode their stout defense and some raucous support from their fans to an upset at home last year before quarterback J.T. Barrett helped the Buckeyes escape in overtime, giving the national champs one of their stiffest tests of the season. Though Ohio State might be even deeper and more talented than a year ago, it will no doubt be getting Penn State’s best shot.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice has just begun for Penn State, but James Franklin already knows the keys for the Nittany Lions this offseason: offensive line and middle linebacker.

It’s really no secret. On offense, the line is without its most experienced asset in NFL draft hopeful Donovan Smith – and, even with him, PSU ranked No. 118 nationally last season in tackles-for-loss allowed (7.54 per game). On defense, PSU needs to replace its top leader in departing senior and All-B1G athlete Mike Hull.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY SportsKeeping Christian Hackenberg clean in the pocket is a top priority for Penn State.

“I think that’s clearly our challenge on defense,” Franklin said prior to Friday's first practice, “not just because of the football player Mike Hull was, but also his leadership and the position he played, being the quarterback of the defense.”

PSU will seek to fill his presence with some combination of three players: returning OLB starter Nyeem Wartman, redshirt junior Gary Wooten and talented-but-injury prone Ben Kline. Wartman is believed to have the inside track on the job due to his experience – although Franklin declined to name an early favorite.

But defense isn’t a huge concern for Linebacker U, especially considering the return of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his second-ranked total defense. The real worry this spring, the unit all eyes will be on, is once again the offensive line.

Only six offensive lines in the FBS allowed more sacks in 2014, and only produced fewer rushing yards. But, despite the numbers, Franklin is looking at the positive.

“Last year, at this point, we had two returning starters in the start of spring ball,” he said. “Had a bunch of new faces in there with a new system. It’s completely different.”

Now, PSU finally at least boasts a two-deep on the line and returns six players with some starting experience. That’s still far from ideal – Franklin preferably would teach players in the system for two seasons before starting them as redshirt sophomores – but that depth is not yet established.

The line has still made strides when it comes to experience, as the two DTs-turned-OGs now have a year under their belts, and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner will enroll sometime after spring practice. Obviously that means good news for the running game -- but it might just mean better news for someone else.

“There’s nobody that is happier about this group returning and the strides they’ve made than Mr. and Mrs. Hackenberg,” Franklin said with a smile, referring to the parents of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. “I’m excited about them. I know [OL coach] Herb [Hand] is excited about working with them. I know they’re so much more confident mentally and physically.”

After the spring’s second practice on Saturday, Franklin said it was still too early to gauge the exact progress of the line and linebackers – “hard to evaluate truly without pads on” – but he remains hopeful for the spring.

He’s already noticed an improvement in his team’s footwork and assignments. The next step is simply fostering more competition until the spring game April 18.

Big Ten morning links

March, 23, 2015
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Cardale Jones got fans talking Friday when he posted this photo on Instagram.

The picture? A photoshopped rendition of a black-and-red Ohio State uniform, something not yet in the Buckeyes' repertoire. "How Sick Would This Be," Jones wrote.

How Sick Would This Be

A photo posted by Cardale Jones (@cardale12_) on


A special uniform like that would be long (and somewhat) overdue for the Buckeyes. Rumors of a black alternate uniform circulated last season before Urban Meyer halted the fun by saying there were no such plans. Still, Meyer said he would be fine with it "somewhere down the road."

It's definitely pretty slick. But, for whatever reason, it just seems like black is a great choice for a uniform. (Just ask Iowa fans.) Twitter was aflutter just three months ago for a similar wardrobe change at Penn State. Defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Akeel Lynch excited the fan base with this Photoshop, and James Franklin was eventually asked about the possibility. The answer? Possibly, but time moves slow on uniform changes.

Maybe we'll see something similar in The Horseshoe soon enough. Or maybe schools should open up some sort of concept contest to fans because there's been some cool-looking mock-ups floating around. (Hint, hint, Maryland.)

Now, on to the links ...

James Franklin's squad ended the 2014 season on a high note -- overcoming a two-TD deficit to shock Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl overtime -- and it is hoping to build off that in 2015.

The schedule is aligned pretty well for the Lions this season. Its nonconference slate includes a slew of cupcakes (Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army), and a 6-0 start certainly isn't out of the question. That's one of the reasons we named Penn State one of two potential Cinderellas this season.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg returns as PSU's starting QB, hoping to rebound from a 7-6 season in 2014.

But, of course, there's this whole matter of getting through the spring first ...

(For an additional pre-spring primer, check out our state of the program report on Penn State and key position battles.)

Spring schedule: Practice begins this wintry Friday and continues on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays until the annual scrimmage. (PSU will also practice the Friday before the scrimmage.). The annual Blue-White Game will take place 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 18, and remains free and open to the public. Parking is also free.

What's new? For the first time since the spring of 2011, there isn't a whole lot of change to the coaching staff. Actually, outside of new graduate assistants and a re-shuffling of some administration, there's nothing new to report. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop turned down an offer from LSU and signed a new deal with Penn State, and defensive line coach Sean Spencer decided to stick with the Lions despite a "dramatic raise" elsewhere. For the first time in any current player's career, the entire coaching staff returns.

Biggest question: It's the same as last season -- what kind of liability will this offensive line be? Only six offensive lines allowed more sacks last season, and only eight sprang their running backs to fewer rushing yards. Assistant Herb Hand is widely regarded as a solid offensive line coach, but he's no magician. There wasn't enough talent, depth or experience on the roster last season, and this line still has its fair share of question marks once again this season. Left tackle Donovan Smith declared early for the NFL draft, so PSU will need to find a replacement this spring. (Junior-college transfer Paris Palmer is among the candidates.) How much progress can PSU's line make? And how will PSU fill the void left by Smith? Those are two very important questions this spring.

Three things we want to see:

1. Christian Hackenberg shaking off last season and taking time with his throws: Give the passer credit for not throwing in the towel and blaming his offensive line for his struggles last season. He's still a great quarterback -- one with top-10 potential in next year's draft -- but he has to rebound mentally from last season and not react as if he's going to get hit every play. That's primarily what it boils down to this spring. He's a smart player and, when he's on, few are better.

2. Someone filling MLB Mike Hull's shoes: Hull was the heartbeat of the 2014 team, and it might take more than one player to fill his leadership role. That being said, for now, we're more interested in who'll be taking his MLB spot. Franklin mentioned three candidates on Tuesday -- Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten and Ben Kline -- and Wartman should be considered the early favorite since he started outside last season. The earlier this position is decided, the better it is for Penn State. Wartman has always been a hard tackler, and he could be in store for a breakout 2015.

3. A maturing group of wide receivers: This is the position that was big on talent but short on experience last season. And that should change at least a bit. DaeSean Hamilton, an All-B1G selection, returns as the primary target -- but there's no telling who might end up as the No. 2. Geno Lewis is athletic but inconsistent, and several highly-recruited players are looking to vye for more time. Sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall showed flashes as first-year players last season, and strong springs for them mean better times are ahead for Hackenberg.

Big Ten morning links

March, 20, 2015
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Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.

I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.

Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.

He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:

"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."

You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.

Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.

He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."

Now, on to the links ...

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State tight end Jesse James was advised to return his senior year. The NFL Draft Advisory Board told defensive end Deion Barnes he’d likely be a fifth-round pick.

Jesse James
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsJesse James is rated among the top 10 tight ends in the 2015 draft.

Those projections didn’t deter either underclassman. They said on Thursday afternoon – the first time they spoke publicly since their decisions – they simply felt they were ready. It didn’t matter what the board said.

“No, I don’t regret it at all,” Barnes said, when asked if he’d reconsider had he known he wouldn’t receive an invitation to the NFL combine. “It wasn’t a quick decision.”

Said James: “I just felt prepared. I sent my thing into the advisory board and they told me to go back to school, but I had confidence in myself that I would succeed and that I would do good throughout this process.”

Left tackle Donovan Smith also declared early – and received criticism from at least one scout for doing so – but left before speaking with the media. It’s the first time, at least in the modern era, that three junior PSU starters declared early for the NFL draft.

Those decisions led to plenty of question marks and second-guessing. But Barnes and James – who’ve seen four head-coaching changes, including the interims, in the last four years -- dispelled any notion they left because of program differences or scheme disagreements. Ultimately, they said, it came down to the same question: Why stay if you feel ready now?

“It doesn’t matter what other people say,” James said. “It’s all about how you feel about yourself. And I feel prepared.”

Barnes and James looked prepared during Thursday’s pro day, where 30 of 32 teams attended. (Seattle and Detroit were the only no-shows.) James – who came in at 6-foot-7.1 inches and 262 pounds – pumped his arms and said he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-second range. (He ran a 4.83 at the combine.) That 40 time would’ve tied him for second-best at the NFL combine, alongside Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman and South Alabama’s Wes Saxton.

Barnes might have turned more heads, as this was the first time scouts watched him perform in shorts. Several alumni and assistants hooted and hollered as Barnes performed 31 reps during the bench press. That would’ve been second-best among defensive ends at the combine, behind only Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr., who did 32.

Barnes said he’s not setting his sights on a particular round; he just wants to get a shot to play football. James? He’s a bit more ambitious. He’s currently ranked as Mel Kiper Jr.'s eighth-best tight end, but James wants to be the first TE off the board.

The pair won’t find out where they go until April 30-May 2, when the draft takes place in Chicago. Until then, they’ll both continue moving on from Penn State – because, they insisted, it’s time. They’re ready.

“If I felt I wasn’t prepared for the next level,” James said, “I would’ve stayed.”

Added Barnes: “I felt like I was physically, mentally ready. I felt like it was that time.”

Big Ten morning links

March, 19, 2015
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Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.

(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)

They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.

The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.

Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.

Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."

It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.

To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.

Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?

A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.

Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.

And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.

Let's go around the rest of the league:

We're straight trippin' here at the Big Ten blog this week.

And by that, we mean we're coming up with the ultimate road trip for the 2015 season, picking the game each we week we'd attend if travel and editorial decisions were no issue. We're up to Week 3 right now, and here are the options:

Sat. Sept. 19

Western Kentucky at Indiana
South Florida at Maryland
UNLV at Michigan
Air Force at Michigan State
Kent State at Minnesota
Northern Illinois at Ohio State
Rutgers at Penn State
Troy at Wisconsin
Northwestern at Duke
Nebraska at Miami (Fla.)
Illinois at North Carolina
Pittsburgh at Iowa
Virginia Tech at Purdue

Mitch Sherman’s pick: Rutgers at Penn State

Since the Big Ten remains behind much of the rest of college football in scheduling early season league games – they’re coming eventually – this is the best we get for the second straight year. In a game scheduled before Rutgers joined the Big Ten, this matchup did not disappoint in 2014 as Christian Hackenberg led the Nittany Lions on a late drive to win 13-10 and spoil the Scarlet Knights’ league debut. The rematch should feature a pair of 2-0 teams and will mark Rutgers’ first trip to Beaver Stadium since 1994. It’s also, surprisingly, the first time Penn State has opened Big Ten play at home since 2009.

Dan Murphy's pick: Rutgers at Penn State

Rutgers and Penn State get conference play underway early in the season for the second year in a row. The trip to Miami is hard to pass up, but there aren't many big names coming to Happy Valley this year and that stadium is worth an annual trip. This matchup -- which proved to be an exciting one in 2014 -- will be Penn State's first test and its only real measuring stick before a mid-October trip to Ohio State.

Austin Ward's pick: Nebraska at Miami

The stakes might not be as high between the storied programs anymore, and they played each other last season at Nebraska. But there is still something special about the Hurricanes and Huskers hooking up, and without all that many appealing matchups between Power 5 opponents on the schedule, this one figures to be the most entertaining of the weekend. It might even provide a hint as to which traditional power is closest to returning to compete again on a national scale.

Brian Bennett: Nebraska at Miami

Miami home games usually have about as much atmosphere as a first-round at a senior PGA golf tournament. But Big Red travels everywhere and will help fill up the stands for the Hurricanes. Miami still has a lot of talent and will put it together one day, while this is the first big road test for Mike Riley as Nebraska's coach. Plus, I'm not going to lie: slipping over to South Beach the day before the game is slightly appealing.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State

Big Ten morning links

March, 18, 2015
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Hitting the links before diving headfirst into the brackets ...

1. Penn State coach James Franklin offered a preview of spring practice on Tuesday, and one of the most interesting developments to come out of it was the official revelation that cornerback Jordan Lucas is moving to safety.

Lucas has started the past two years at corner and has been excellent at the position. But Franklin said that while Lucas has the talent to play cornerback in the NFL, he has a chance to "be special" at safety.

The move had been hinted at earlier this offseason. Penn State is light at safety after Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle all graduated, but it is flush with young talent at corner. Lucas should make a relatively smooth transition to safety, and at this point, you have to give Bob Shoop the benefit of the doubt on all matters pertaining to defense.

2. Michigan State's task of replacing ultra-productive running back Jeremy Langford might have gotten a little more difficult.

The team's leading returning rusher, sophomore Delton Williams, was suspended from all team activities on Tuesday by head coach Mark Dantonio. He was charged with brandishing a firearm in an apparent road rage incident on Monday night (side note: is the word brandishing ever used with anything else but a weapon?).

Williams reportedly had a permit for the handgun, and the charge is only a misdemeanor. However, Michigan State's code of conduct prohibits any guns on campus property, so some serious university sanctions could be coming as well.

Williams, who ran for 316 yards and five touchdowns last season, was seen as the early frontrunner to replace Langford. For at least the time being, sophomore Gerald Holmes is the most experienced returning back with 44 rushing yards last season. Redshirt freshman Madre London and true freshman L.J. Scott could also take on bigger responsibilities.

Another Michigan State player -- receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. -- was arrested late last month on drunken and disorderly charges. The Spartans don't start spring practice until next week, and hopefully no more players will make bad decisions before then.

Around the Big Ten ...

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For the first time since 2011, Penn State finally has some stability this spring.

No current player has experienced back-to-back springs with the same head coach and coordinators. None have seen the entire staff of assistants return. And none have really had a chance to get comfortable with a system.

They finally do now -- although it was revealed Tuesday that it might have been a closer call than some imagined. Turns out defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who reportedly interviewed with LSU before accepting a new PSU deal, wasn’t the only assistant being courted.

"Bob is the guy that it became a big story, but we got a bunch of guys on our staff that got offers and opportunities to move on and turned it down," James Franklin said during a Tuesday news conference. "[DL coach] Sean Spencer is a guy I’m so appreciative of and so proud of, because he got an offer with a dramatic raise at a school people would consider a historic school and turned it down without even telling me. I found out from the other coaches."

Franklin declined to mention the specific school that Spencer received an offer from, but it hasn’t been uncommon to see Franklin’s assistants earn offers outside the program. One news outlet stumped for offensive line coach Herb Hand this offseason as Tulsa's new head coach, and Hand was a candidate as Vanderbilt’s head coach last winter. Linebackers coach Brent Pry also turned down a head-coaching job at Georgia Southern last January to stick with Franklin.

"I think that’s a great example of the commitment that our guys have to this program, to the university ... and to our players," Franklin said. “That’s Bob, that’s Sean, that’s a number of them. I could go on and on.

"The fact we were able to keep them all together -- and the administrative staff -- keeping all those people intact is really important."

That continuity is undoubtedly important to these players. Franklin noticed a "wall" last season when he first joined Penn State, and it took some time to break that down and breed familiarity and trust. As a further example, Franklin said he spoke with guard/center Angelo Mangiro on Monday, and the redshirt senior commented about how he never before went through a cadence snapping the ball. Until Franklin, that is.

Now, thanks to that stability, there is a foundation to build on when spring practice starts Friday. A foundation that most of the roster hasn’t yet experienced.

"That stability and that continuity that we saw here at Penn State for a long time, we want to try to be able to do it as well, because we know how valuable it is," Franklin said. "... Joe was here for 62 years, and I was here 62 weeks. Got a long way to go."

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.

How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.

Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg leads a group of Big Ten QBs expected to surpass 2,500 passing yards in 2015.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.

Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.

On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.

Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.

It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.

Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.

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Even with every NFL team represented at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there was a noticeable lack of fanfare as Ohio State showcased its seniors for scouts, coaches and general mangers on its pro day.

Clearly the Buckeyes must be saving it up for what promises to be a circus at this time next year.

There were a couple guys making a final push to try to sneak into the first round. Wide receiver Devin Smith drew ample attention during his positional workout as teams weigh their options with one of the most successful collegiate deep threats in recent memory. But for the most part, Friday inadvertently served as just one more reminder of how much talent Ohio State has returning to defend the national title. The buzz is already building for what figures to be a more meaningful pro day in terms of shaping the early rounds of the the 2016 NFL draft.

There will probably be a couple quarterbacks to evaluate. Ohio State will have a pair of multi-year starters on the offensive line working out, plus a couple defenders with three years of first-team experience. But the real show could be put on by a handful of blue-chip prospects who could be foregoing their final year of eligibility, with defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell all looking like potential options to jump to the next level at this early stage.

The collection of talent Urban Meyer has recruited for the Buckeyes since taking over the program is staggering, though NFL teams are still going to have to wait a little longer to get their hands on most of it. And while Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the pros, the floodgates might really open up next season with one more year to develop for the core of last year's title team.

The roles Smith, defensive tackle Michael Bennett, cornerback Doran Grant and tight end Jeff Heuerman played for the Buckeyes obviously shouldn't be overlooked, and all of them have the tools to be valuable assets at the next level even if they don't have their names called early in the draft. But it seems pretty clear that some of the most coveted Buckeyes were just watching the festivities from the sideline on Friday, and their chance to show what they can do next year is going to draw a crowd that just might test the capacity of the practice facility.

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