video 
It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.

Schedule analysis: Penn State

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
1:00
PM ET
The unofficial midpoint of preseason camp is here, with the college football season set to open two weeks from Thursday night. En route to kickoff, we’re examining the schedules of every Big Ten team.

The Penn State Nittany Lions are up next.

Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: vs. Central Florida (12-1)
Sept 6: Akron (5-7)
Sept. 20: Massachusetts (1-11)
Nov. 15: Temple (2-10)

East Division games

Sept. 13: at Rutgers
Oct. 11: at Michigan
Oct. 25: Ohio State
Nov. 1: Maryland
Nov. 8: at Indiana
Nov. 29: Michigan State

Crossover games

Sept. 27: Northwestern
Nov. 22: at Illinois

No-plays

Nebraska
Iowa
Wisconsin
Purdue
Minnesota

Gut-check game: With an off week before and after the trip to Michigan and the memory fresh of the Nittany Lions’ four-overtime defeat of the Wolverines a year ago, this looks like a game to circle on the schedule as a gauge of progress in James Franklin’s initial season. Penn State has won four straight over Michigan, which saves its two most difficult games for the final six weeks and should meet Penn State with a decent amount of momentum. These blue-blood program are new division rivals. The October meeting offers a chance for Christian Hackenberg to show just how much he’s improved since his last visit to a 100,000-seat road venue after the debacle last year at Ohio State.

Trap game: Look no further than Rutgers in the Big Ten opener. It’s conceivable that the Lions will need at least a week to return to normalcy from the trip overseas. This early start to Big Ten play may fall at just the right time for Rutgers, which can make its season with a win over traditionally superior Penn State, which has regularly beat the Scarlet Knights for recruits in the state of New Jersey. Plus, Rutgers’ defensive line matches well against the suspect PSU offensive front.

Snoozer: After the ultra-interesting opener, the out-of-league games offer little. We’ll go with UMass as the foe with the least to offer after a 1-11 run through the MAC a year ago. The Minutemen’s schedule is brutal, with games against Boston College, Colorado and Vanderbilt before the trip to Penn State.

Nonconference challenge: The August trip to Ireland to face Central Florida, which beat PSU last year in State College, jumps off the page. Franklin likes to joke that when he took the job in January and heard about the season opener in Dublin, he thought it was Ohio. Blake Bortles is gone for UCF, but the Knights return plenty, especially on defense, from a team that won the Fiesta Bowl last season. Penn State figures to get plenty of support at the 82,000-seat Croke Park, but the whole thing will feel foreign. And nothing would pop the Franklin bubble like an opening-game loss.

Analysis: After the tricky first three weeks, featuring the trip to Ireland and rekindling the series with Rutgers -- scheduled as a nonleague game before the Scarlet Knights accepted an invite to join the Big Ten -- it gets fairly standard. The Lions don’t have to worry about the top three teams in the West, dropping Nebraska from the schedule after three straight losses to the Huskers in crossover play. Considering the sanctions in place, it would be nice to give Franklin a layup in his opener. Instead, the outcome against UCF figures to set a tone that will carry into October. Home games against Ohio State and Michigan State are nice, but are either truly winnable? A bowl ban remains in place, though some hope exists that the NCAA might reduce it from four years to two, allowing Penn State to play this year in the postseason.

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
video» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

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.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

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.
Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They outline potential peaks and valleys and give us an opportunity, before we get down to the business of the season, to have a little fun. Don't take these too seriously (although many of you will).

Up next is a team that couldn't have envisioned a much better case than what happened last season: the Michigan State Spartans.

Best case

Sparty on! This time, all the way to JerryWorld. Michigan State continues its remarkable ascent under Mark Dantonio and reaches college football's apex.

The run begins in Week 2 at deafening Autzen Stadium, which quickly grows silent as the Spartan Dawgs make fois gras out of the home team. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond both intercept Marcus Mariota in the first half, and Connor Cook is the best quarterback on the field, shredding Oregon's defense for three touchdown passes. Sparty steals The Duck's motorcycle and pops wheelies around the field afterward.

Four weeks later, MSU opens Big Ten play the way it left off in 2013: With a double-digit win. The defense holds Ameer Abdullah to 27 rush yards on 27 carries and Jack Conklin makes sure Randy Gregory gets nowhere near Cook. Punter Mike Sadler scores on a fake punt that Dantonio nicknames "Cat in the Hat," while sneering at Bo Pelini.

Three weeks later, the Spartans are back at home to face rival Michigan, which brings a 7-0 record to East Lansing. The Wolverines leave at 7-1, blown out yet again by Dantonio's crew, which once again holds Michigan to a negative rushing total. Malik McDowell records three sacks. Brady Hoke ends the game wearing long sleeves and a headset.

In the much-anticipated rematch against Ohio State under the lights, MSU delivers another gem. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi coaches the entire game from the sideline as the Spartans sack Braxton Miller six times. It's a big night for MSU's Ohioans: Cook, Marcus Rush, Drummond in a 24-13 win. Afterward, Urban Meyer finds a few cold pizzas at his locker.

MSU goes on to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, as Sadler executes a textbook flop in crunch time, drawing a penalty on Wisconsin and allowing the Spartans to run out the clock. It's a perfect regular season and offensive lineman Travis Jackson leads the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd in the "Yes! Yes!" chant.

The Spartans return to the Rose Bowl and beat Florida State before advancing to face Alabama in the national title game. It's Dantonio versus Nick Saban, his old boss at MSU. Cook rallies the offense in the closing minutes and the Spartans win 21-20. The national title is theirs.

Dantonio signs a lifetime contract. Narduzzi turns down three Big Ten head-coaching jobs to remain at MSU. Michigan drops its final five games. Cook and Shilique Calhoun return for their senior seasons.

Worst case

Same old Spartans? That phrase should be retired, but Michigan State once again crumbles under the weight of expectations.

Things go badly in Eugene as Oregon easily covers the spread and shreds Michigan State's defense. The concerns about losing Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are magnified as Mariota completes 23 of 25 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. The Duck runs over Sparty's foot.

Nebraska pulls off its second straight win at Spartan Stadium, thanks again to a controversial penalty call, this time on Waynes. The Huskers snuff out a Spartans fake and cash in for six, and Abdullah scores the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

After a narrow win at Purdue, Michigan State falls behind early at Indiana, like it did in 2012. This time, the Spartans can't rally as a Cook interception seals a shocking loss. The pain worsens the following week as undefeated Michigan beats up the Spartans at the line of scrimmage, drawing four unnecessary roughness penalties in a 10-point win. A skywriter spells "Big Blue, still Big Bro" above Spartan Stadium.

The misery continues the following week as Miller dissects a defense that looks nothing like its typical form. Meyer slams on the gas in the fourth quarter and Ohio State wins by 17. Cook throws three picks.

After two less-than impressive wins against the Big Ten newcomers, MSU flat-lines in Happy Valley, falling 17-3 to Penn State. That same day, Ohio State and Michigan meet at Ohio Stadium in a matchup of the only remaining major-conference undefeated teams.

At 6-6, Michigan State heads to the Dallas area for a bowl game and falls to Marshall. Narduzzi turns down head-coaching jobs in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 for the gig at Rutgers, ensuring he'll face MSU every season in the East Division.

Calhoun goes pro. McDowell transfers. Ohio State and Michigan both make the college football playoff. My downstairs neighbor, Tim, burns all his Spartans gear. Wrestler Daniel Bryan sues Jackson for copyright. Michigan students shave off Sparty's eyebrows.

Big Ten morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
AM ET
The hyperbole hits a high point in February on signing day.

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.



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.

East Division
  • 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.
West Division
  • 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.
And finally ...
  • Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
After a season of bad breaks (and often bad play) and a spring under national scrutiny, Northwestern hoped its toughest days were in the past.

Venric Mark
David Banks/Getty ImagesVenric Mark's sudden transfer is a tough blow for the Northwestern offense.
But Wednesday proved to be a very tough day for the program, as standout running back Venric Mark announced he will transfer to play closer to his home in Houston. If that stunner wasn't enough, Northwestern also lost veteran wide receiver Christian Jones to a season-ending knee injury sustained in practice.

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
5:00
PM ET
Coming back at you for another hump-day mailbag. Don't forget that you can tweet your questions (and follow all my brilliant thoughts) on Twitter @BennettESPN.

Let's begin:

.

Brian Bennett: I think it would be possible, yes. If Oregon went on to win the Pac-12, then the Big Ten would have a powerful argument for inclusion in the Playoff over the Pac-12 given that its champion beat their champion on the road. Yet it's a little hard to see Ohio State being good enough to win in East Lansing but still losing two other Big Ten games. That could also hurt the Big Ten's overall strength-of-schedule case unless the West Division champ had a great season.

A similar scenario could unfold for Wisconsin. Let's say the Badgers beat LSU in the opener but lose a game in the Big Ten before winning the league title. That should still be enough to get Wisconsin in, assuming LSU has a strong season. The selection committee is going to be looking closely at nonconference games to judge schedule and conference strength, so the Oregon and LSU games are important for everyone in the Big Ten.


Corey from East of Huskerland writes: With the autonomy ruling, and barring the former "Mid Majors" don't overrule the change, how do you think it will impact B1G recruiting deficiencies? For example, since I bleed Husker red, it's widely noted that recruiting kids to Lincoln has it's issues, being so far away from fertile recruiting grounds. Can this change allow teams, like my Huskers, to lessen that gap, lets say, with more abilities to help parents come to the games and so forth? Not only for Nebraska, but for the B1G as a whole.

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and the answer remains to be seen. One of the items power conference leaders have talked about is covering travel expenses for families to travel to postseason games. But I haven't heard much, if any, talk about paying for families to travel to regular-season contests. That could change, though. A major issue for Nebraska, and many Big Ten teams, is allowing earlier official visits for prospects. Yet as Mitch Sherman noted in this morning's links, other leagues don't necessarily see that in their best interests.

There might be autonomy, but the new system still requires the following level of agreement to pass legislation: A) a 60 percent of the 80-member voting panel and three of the five power conferences, or B) a simple majority and four of the five power conferences. Can the Big Ten convince enough other schools and at least two other conferences to make those recruiting changes? Will there be some horse-trading going on, as some conferences barter to pass their pet projects? It will be fascinating to see how this all shakes out.

.

Brian Bennett: I don't think it's writing off as much as playing wait and see with the Wolverines. No one is going to pick Michigan to finish ahead of Ohio State and Michigan State in the East Division, not after the Maize and Blue have gone 15-11 the past two seasons. There are still major concerns about the offensive line, and the running game -- outside of the quarterbacks -- has been abysmal of late. Still, as you mentioned, there is plenty of talent on hand, and I expect offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to make a difference. Enough of a difference to be a true Big Ten title contender? I need to see that before I can believe it.


Brian W. from Athens, Ohio, writes: Dontre Wilson was used as a decoy much of last year. with the exit of Philly Brown what do you see as his roll this year?

Brian Bennett: Urban Meyer has said that Dontre Wilson wasn't strong enough last season to block or run between the tackles. "He was a hybrid guy that really wasn't great at anything," Meyer said. So Wilson didn't touch the ball much and was basically a non-factor down the stretch last season for the Buckeyes. And that's OK, because he was a true freshman, after all. Wilson has reportedly put on more than 20 pounds since the end of last season. I think you could see him excel now in that Percy Harvin-type, hybrid-back role where he can do a little bit of everything. Philly Brown is not a great comparison because he developed into a true No. 1 receiver, which Wilson probably never will be. But Wilson could be a very dangerous player if his strength and understanding of the game have now caught up to his elite speed.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith already knows what this article is going to say.

Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.

Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDonovan Smith is the only returning starter on the Penn State offensive line, and he's motivated by that.
“A lot of people hear it, but we use it as motivation,” Smith said, adding some of his teammates keep the negative articles taped to their lockers or saved to their phones. “They read them daily or at night, or stuff like that. We’re just going to use it as motivation and push on from there.”

That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.

Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.

“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.

“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”

Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.

Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?

“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”

The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.

But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”

Best case/Worst Case: Minnesota

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
2:00
PM ET
Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They illustrate potential highs and lows and give us an opportunity, before the seriousness of the season arrives, to have a little fun.

Up, the next Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Best case

Before all the lollipops and rose petals, a question: Minnesota fans, would you take another 8-5 season, guaranteed no better or worse, if it were offered today?

Yes? I thought so.

With a backloaded schedule, quarterback questions and not much in the way of all-conference-caliber talent, the Gophers ought to jump at the opportunity to repeat the magic of 2013. Let’s face it, last season played out very much in best-case fashion.

Fast forward to Nov. 29. It’s been a fun fall for the Gophers as quarterback Mitch Leidner has come of age in Matt Limegrover’s offense. Running back David Cobb improved on his 1,200-yard junior season to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors. The Gophers got a great season from defensive end Theiren Cockran.

Still, there is unfinished business at hand. Wisconsin has won 10 straight in this series. Little reason exists to believe, after losses to Ohio State and Nebraska -- the Gophers’ first two-game skid of the season -- that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is coming back to the Twin Cities.

But coach Gary Andersen’s club, eliminated from contention for the West title a week earlier in a loss at Iowa, wallowed in its sorrows and ate a bit too much turkey before the visit from Leidner and Co.

The sophomore quarterback turns Camp Randall into his personal playground, throwing for 200 yards in the first half -- highlighted by a 93-yard catch and run from big tight end Maxx Williams to give the Gophers a 21-7 lead. They hold on to win 24-21 as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon loses his second late fumble in as many weeks, sealing the win for Minnesota.

The Gophers carry Jerry Kill out of the stadium on their shoulders after a second straight eight-win regular season that began with a 4-0 nonconference run, featuring a 6-4 victory at TCU on Sept. 13 that does little for Big Ten credibility. Sure, a win’s a win, but this game was so ugly that Kill and old buddy Gary Patterson agreed during the post-game handshake to cancel the Horned Frogs' return trip to Minneapolis in 2015.

Minnesota can’t pull off its fourth win against Michigan since 1977, but the Gophers rebound behind Cobb and an improving defensive line to win three of the next four.

The Big Ten rewards Kill with an Outback Bowl appearance, Minnesota’s first postseason trip to Florida since the 2000 MicronPC.com Bowl (that game -- and sponsor -- existed) to face fellow upstart Ole Miss.

Low and behold, Minnesota gets its ninth victory on New Year’s Day. Guess the Gopher fans should think twice about that eight-win guarantee after all.

Worst case

Murphy’s Law at work here, starting on Sept. 6 as the Gophers lose at home to Conference USA’s Middle Tennessee when Leidner throws four interceptions. A week later, Minnesota is reeling as it heads to TCU, and its collective mood only gets worse after a 24-0 beatdown by the Frogs exposes the lack of playmakers on this offense.

Minnesota opens Big Ten play with losses to Michigan and Northwestern before staging a temporary resurgence on homecoming against Purdue. But Cobb and senior guard Zac Epping, the Gophers’ best lineman, are injured on different parts of the same play in a bit of a microcosm of the season.

Both players sit as Minnesota loses at Illinois, ending a four-game winning streak by the Gophers in Champaign. Iowa beats Minnesota at home in a two-hour, 25-minute pillow fight amid freezing rain as neither team completes a pass after halftime. The Hawkeyes, in fact, do not attempt a pass in the second half.

On the eve of a visit from Ohio State, Minnesota fans rally in support in support of Richard Pitino’s basketball team as the coach defeats his father, Rick Pitino, and Louisville in the Armed Forces Class in Puerto Rico. So starved for a celebration, Minnesota students party right through Saturday, largely missing Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller's 500 yards of total offense in a 52-3 OSU victory.

Trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin do not go much better. If you’re counting, that’s a 3-9 season, same as 2010 and 2011, yet this time around, it feels much worse.
Do you think Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon will match or eclipse last season's rushing total of 1,609 yards? Is Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller capable of another 36-touchdown season?

Have a good feeling about the Big Ten's rushing or passing leader? Well, you will want to grab your wallet and read on.

Bovada has set over-unders on several key Big Ten statistical milestones for the 2014 season.

Let's check 'em out:
  • Miller's total passing yards: 2,095.5 (last season: 2,094 yards)
  • Miller's total rushing yards: 850.5 (last season: 1,068)
  • Miller's total rushing and passing touchdowns: 32.5 (last season: 36)
  • Gordon's total rushing yards: 1,554.5 (last season: 1,609)
  • Gordon's total rushing touchdowns: 14.5 (last season: 12)
  • Stefon Diggs' total receiving yards: 950.5 (last season: 587*)
  • Diggs total receiving touchdowns: 6.5 (last season: 3*)

*Diggs appeared in only seven games last season because of injury

Bovada also sets odds on the Big Ten's top statistical races:

Rushing yards

Gordon: 1/1
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: 3/1
David Cobb, Minnesota: 13/4
Tevin Coleman, Indiana: 7/2
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: 4/1

Rushing touchdowns

Langford: 2/1
Gordon: 9/4
Coleman: 5/2
Abdullah: 11/4
Cobb: 15/4

Receiving yards

Shane Wynn, Indiana: 2/1
Devin Funchess, Michigan: 9/4
Diggs: 5/2
Devin Smith, Ohio State: 3/1
Kenny Bell, Nebraska: 13/4

Receiving touchdowns

Funchess: 7/4
Smith: 9/4
Wynn: 11/4
Diggs: 13/4
Bell: 7/2

It's interesting that Bovada's over-under rushing total for Gordon is lower than his 2013 total -- despite the departure of James White -- though he's still the best bet to lead the Big Ten in rushing. The oddsmakers also see a rushing yards drop-off for Miller, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.

Abdullah could be a good bet for rushing leader (not touchdowns leader, as Imani Cross takes some away from him), and the receiving yards race looks totally wide open.

Schedule analysis: Ohio State

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:00
PM ET
We're barely two weeks from the start of the 2014 season. As the countdown continues, we're putting each Big Ten team's schedule under the microscope.

Up next: the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Navy (9-4)
Sept. 6: Virginia Tech (8-5)
Sept. 13: Kent State (4-8)
Sept. 27: Cincinnati (9-4)

East Division games

Oct. 4: at Maryland
Oct. 18: Rutgers
Oct. 25: at Penn State
Nov. 8: at Michigan State
Nov. 22: Indiana
Nov. 29: Michigan

Crossover games

Nov. 1: Illinois
Nov. 15: at Minnesota

No-plays

Iowa
Nebraska
Northwestern
Purdue
Wisconsin

Gut-check game: Michigan State handed Urban Meyer his first loss as Buckeyes coach and spoiled Ohio State's quest for a Big Ten championship and a shot at the national title last season. The Buckeyes-Spartans showdown under the lights Nov. 8 is the Big Ten's premier game entering the 2014 season. Ohio State was fortunate to escape East Lansing with a one-point win in 2012. These are two physical, talented teams with strong quarterbacks and excellent defensive linemen. If Ohio State wants to reclaim its place atop the Big Ten, it must get through the Spartans.

Trap game: Win or lose, the Michigan State game will take a lot out of the Buckeyes both mentally and physically. Ohio State then has to travel to Minnesota the following week. It will probably be about 16 degrees at TCF Bank Stadium before the wind chill, and Minnesota uses a power-oriented offense that, if effective, can limit possessions and shorten the game. The Gophers are only getting better under Jerry Kill and will be searching for a true signature win. Ohio State can't look past this one.

Snoozer: Ohio State's overall nonconference slate is much better than last year's, but the Kent State contest doesn't do too much for me. The return of Golden Flashes coach Paul Haynes, a former Ohio State assistant, is a nice storyline, and Kent State had some decent performances in 2013, but the Buckeyes should have little trouble in this one.

Nonconference challenge: The schedule lacks a true marquee name, but Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati all pose different challenges. I'll go with Virginia Tech, as the Hokies are almost always strong on defense and special teams, which could allow them to hang around with Ohio State. There are questions on offense, but running back Trey Edmunds should bolster a rush attack that really struggled in 2013. It's a big year for coach Frank Beamer, and Virginia Tech will be anxious to show it can still compete with the nation's elite.

Analysis: This is an upgrade from 2013, even though Ohio State could be favored in every game and faces only one preseason playoff contender in Michigan State. The crossover games in the Big Ten largely stink this season, and Ohio State misses the top West Division title contenders. The Buckeyes face what should be an improved Michigan team at home, and while a trip to Penn State could be tricky, Ohio State is deeper than the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball. The big question is whether Ohio State must run the table to qualify for a playoff spot, or if it could afford a loss along the way. Despite a 24-0 mark in regular-season Big Ten play under Meyer, Ohio State has had several close calls. Michigan State should be the Buckeyes' toughest test, but there aren't as many easy wins as there were a year ago.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The season hasn’t yet started for Penn State, but Christian Hackenberg is already making program history.

The second-year quarterback was announced as a team captain Wednesday morning, making him the first sophomore to earn the honor in the team’s 128-year history. Injured senior guard Miles Dieffenbach joins him as the other offensive captain.

“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said during Big Ten media days. “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.”

The captaincy isn’t a huge surprise since Hackenberg is widely regarded as the team’s top player. It’s more surprising he’s the first sophomore ever in program history to achieve the feat.

Then again, he became just the third quarterback to ever start a season opener as a true freshman, so the opportunity hasn’t often been there in the past. Eugene “Shorty” Miller became the first to start in 1910 and Rob Bolden the second exactly a century later.

Hackenberg is actually only the second-youngest player to earn the honor, though. Tailback Johnny Chuckran became the first and only freshman team captain in 1944, during World War II. According to Penn State historian Lou Prato, Chuckran was named captain in Week 4 after all the Marines -- which included six starters -- left.

Penn State also named the defensive co-captains as linebacker Mike Hull and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan. Three players – kicker Sam Ficken and safeties Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser – were the special teams co-captains.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Ameer Abdullah, RB; Randy Gregory, DE; Kenny Bell, WR; Corey Cooper, S; Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB.

Key losses: Quincy Enunwa, WR; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB; Ciante Evans, DB; Spencer Long, OG; Jeremiah Sirles, OT

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and Nebraska will face a Big Ten road schedule that includes games at Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State.
Instant impact newcomer: Colorado transfer Alex Lewis could start at left tackle. The 6-foot-6, 290-pounder started all 12 games at guard for the Buffaloes in 2012 before transferring and running into legal problems.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Tommy Armstrong Jr., Soph., 6-1, 220; RB: Ameer Abdullah, Sr., 5-9, 195; WR: Kenny Bell, Sr., 6-1, 185,; WR: Jamal Turner, Sr., 6-1, 190; WR: Alonzo Moore, Soph, 6-2, 195; OT: Alex Lewis, Jr., 6-6, 290; OT: Zach Sterup, Jr., 6-8, 320; G: Jake Cotton, Sr., 6-6, 305; G: Mike Moudy, Sr., 6-5, 305; C: Mark Pelini, Sr., 6-0, 290; TE: Cethan Carter, Soph., 6-4, 240.

Defense: DE: Randy Gregory, Jr., 6-6, 240; DE: Greg McMullen, Soph., 6-3, 280; DT: Vincent Valentine, Soph., 6-3, 320; DT: Maliek Collins, So., 6-2, 300; LB: David Santos, Jr., 6-0, 225; LB: Josh Banderas, Soph., 6-2, 235; LB: Zaire Anderson, Sr., 5-11, 220; CB: Josh Mitchell, Sr., 5-11, 160; CB: Jonathan Rose, Jr., 6-1, 195; S Nathan Gerry, Soph., 6-2, 205; S: Corey Cooper, Sr., 6-1, 215.

Specialists: K: Drew Brown, Fr.; P: Sam Foltz, Soph.

Biggest question mark: Can Armstrong develop into a top-rate quarterback? He showed flashes of potential after being thrust into the role in 2013 following the loss of Taylor Martinez, including a strong performance in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia. But he also struggled at times with his accuracy. The Huskers appear to be well stocked at most other positions but need consistent play from under center.

Most important game: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin. Nebraska is behind the eight ball when it comes to the schedule, compared to the other West Division contenders. Not only did the Huskers draw a road game at Michigan State as a crossover, they also have to go to Wisconsin and Iowa. There's a good chance Nebraska will have to win this game in Madison to stay in contention for the West title. They didn't fare well the last time they played in Camp Randall, and they gave up 70 points the last time they faced Wisconsin (in the 2012 Big Ten title game).

Upset special: Week 3 at Fresno State. The Bulldogs are a dangerous team and the atmosphere should be wild. Going to Fresno a week before hosting Miami seems to spell trouble.

Key stat: Nebraska is minus-23 in turnover margin the past two seasons combined. Until the Huskers get their turnover problems solved, they're going to have a tough time taking that next step to being a championship team.

What they're wearing: Pelini himself modeled the new Nebraska alternate duds by showing up in full uniform at a team meeting. The Huskers will wear the all-red look on Sept. 27 against Illinois.



Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) can surprise you with some interesting tweets, including his stunning response to Faux Pelini in January and his uniform stunt earlier this month. But don't expect a lot of in-season tweets from the head man. Players to follow include the always fascinating Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80), Abdullah (@Ameerguapo) and Armstrong (@Tommy_Gun4). There's no better sports parody account than the aforementioned Faux Pelini (@FauxPelini), though his tweets are not always family-friendly. And don't forget the team's official account.

They said it: "I think we have depth in areas that is really going to help us be a good football team, and also we saw a lot of young guys last year kind of come of age as the season went on. I'm looking forward to seeing those young men continue to develop into the type of players we feel can win championships at our school. That's what we're after. We're looking for a championship. I think we have the pieces." -- Bo Pelini.

ESPN Stats & Information projections: 7.61 wins

Wise guys over/under: 8 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Nine wins. Rust Cohle would tell you that time is a flat circle and we keep repeating our lives over and over again. It sure feels that way in Lincoln, as Nebraska has gone either 9-4 or 10-4 in all six seasons under Pelini. We're sure as heck not going to bet against the trend.
video
If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.

Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.

"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTo change the national perception that it is a weak conference, the Big Ten needs more big victories like Michigan State's against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
To be sure, the league has brought most of this misery upon itself. The Big Ten is 11-21 in bowl games in the past four seasons and has posted a winning postseason record once (in 2010) since 2002. The league has lost 25 of its past 33 games against ranked, power conference competition and Notre Dame. The Big Ten hasn’t played for a national championship since the 2007 season, when Ohio State’s second straight double-digit loss to an SEC team did much to create the SEC-rules, Big-Ten-drools paradigm we’ve been living in ever since.

Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.

Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.

"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."

The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.

"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."

The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.

"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."

Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.

"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."

There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.

"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."

The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.

"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."

Big Ten morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
8:00
AM ET
Let’s talk about your new favorite subject and mine: autonomy.

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 ...

East Division
West Division
Overtime
Last link . . .

SPONSORED HEADLINES