<
>

Big Ten Friday mailbag

It's been a while, folks. Let's get to those questions. Be sure to follow my new Twitter account (@ESPNRittenberg).

Matt from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: Adam, I think the real X-factor for Michigan this year is Coach Nuss. Lost in the well-documented struggles of Michigan's offense last year is the fact that Al Borges completely mismanaged the players' talents by switching schemes on an almost weekly basis and calling plays (especially in big games on the road) that left fans scratching their heads. Having a consistent scheme and sound play calling (which I expect from Nuss) will be a HUGE step forward in the right direction for Michigan this year. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: There's certainly some truth to your assessment of Borges, although to be fair, he inherited players recruited to the spread and had to use a hybrid system at times while working toward a true pro-style offense. Doug Nussmeier should provide a clearer identity on offense, but I still wonder if he's working with a spread quarterback (Devin Gardner) who seemed to flourish when Michigan used more spread concepts last season (Indiana, Ohio State games).

You're right that consistency in scheme and play calling is critical for Michigan, but nothing will matter if the line doesn't improve. Michigan has recruited too well up front to struggle as much as it did at times last season. No group in the Big Ten is under more scrutiny than Michigan's front five. If the line holds, Nussmeier should have the entire unit on the right track.

Rittenberg: It's between Michigan and Northwestern for me. While I believe Purdue will be substantially better, and the Boilers have played Notre Dame well in recent years, the Irish have too much offensive firepower for Purdue with Everett Golson back at quarterback. Both Michigan and Northwestern play Notre Dame on the road, which won't be easy, and injuries could be a factor for the Northwestern game, which takes place so late in the season (Nov. 15).

I think the surprise factor of a Week 2 matchup could help Michigan, which has won six of the past eight matchups with Notre Dame and had plenty of chances to win two years ago in South Bend. We don't know what to expect from the Wolverines' offense under Nussmeier, and Notre Dame appears to be vulnerable on defense. Northwestern traditionally has been very good in November and has earned several big road wins under Pat Fitzgerald. You know Fitz, who played linebacker during Northwestern's breakthrough 1995 win at Notre Dame, will have the Wildcats geared up for that one.

Rittenberg: It's a combination of Melvin Gordon's return, the scheduling, Wisconsin's track record of consistent good and sometimes great seasons, and, well, laziness. Anyone who truly studies Wisconsin's roster and others around college football can't intelligently label the Badgers as a top-15 team. Could they evolve into one? Absolutely. Gary Andersen is a very good coach with a very good staff. But this is a team with huge questions at quarterback, receiver and in the defensive front seven.

Iowa is a more complete team with just as favorable a schedule, if not more so (Wisconsin visits Iowa City on Nov. 22). Nebraska could be the most talented team in the West Division, although its road schedule (MSU, Wisconsin, Iowa) is pretty tough. Wisconsin might evolve into a top-15 team and reach the Big Ten title game, but the Badgers' preseason ranking is based more on who they've been in the past, not on what they appear to be entering the fall.

Rittenberg: It's a simple question with a not-so simple answer. It all depends on how you measure nonleague schedules, as I wrote back in June. It's great that Michigan State (Oregon) and Wisconsin (LSU) are playing marquee opponents. They deserve credit for those matchups. But their remaining nonleague slates aren't too exciting. Still, I'd put MSU and Wisconsin at the top along with Ohio State (Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Navy) and Northwestern (Notre Dame, Northern Illinois, Cal).

I also don't mind what teams like Michigan (Notre Dame, Utah), Nebraska (Miami, Fresno State), Indiana (Missouri, Bowling Green), Maryland (West Virginia, Syracuse) and Iowa (Pitt, Iowa State) have on the docket. Minnesota and Illinois both have pretty weak nonleague schedules other than trips to TCU and Washington, respectively.


Jacob from Sioux Falls, S.D., writes: Adam,For the sake of having fun...Ohio State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame finish undefeated. In your opinion...Which two would get left out of the playoff?

Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Jacob, albeit a highly unlikely scenario. Oregon and Notre Dame are locks to be in because of their schedules. The Ducks play a nine-game Pac-12 slate, a league title game and Michigan State in Week 2. Notre Dame has a terrific schedule (Florida State, Stanford, Louisville, Arizona State, USC, among others). I also expect Alabama to be in there unless the SEC really struggles this fall.

Georgia Tech probably gets left out unless it beats an undefeated Florida State in the ACC title game. So it comes down to Oklahoma and Ohio State. I don't know if Oklahoma benefits from playing Tennessee, a team that could struggle this year. Ohio State's overall nonleague schedule is better, and I think the Big Ten is a bit better than the Big 12 this season. So I'd give the Buckeyes a slight edge, leaving Oklahoma out.