Big Ten mailbag

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Hours before national signing day, let's see what's on your mind.

John from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: Adam, I have just read in the paper today that the Athletic Department at Ohio State will be in the "Red" for the first time. They intend to raise ticket prices for football and men's basketball. Two questions: 1. What do you attribute this failure to at least break even? The excessively high salaries? 2. Do you think this could be the start of a trend in major college athletics?

Adam Rittenberg: John is referring to this article in The Columbus Dispatch. I'm not an economics expert, but it seems as though the financial crisis is hitting mega athletic departments with large numbers of varsity sports. Stanford, a regular contender for the Director's Cup, also reported major financial problems because of the economy. Ohio State and Stanford both carry a ton of sports. Escalating coaching salaries certainly play a role, and Ohio State has two very highly paid coaches in Jim Tressel and Thad Matta, but having to fund so many varsity sports really takes a toll at times like these. I definitely see this becoming a trend in major college sports, and other so-called factories will be hit hard.

Brian from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: I was reading the signing day preview and it says they asked the bloggers to fill out the "best" section. You picked Michigan as having the best uniform? I can see them being in the running for best helmet, but overall uniform has to go to Iowa's home attire.

Adam Rittenberg: I love the Hawkeyes' look at home, but Michigan boasts a more recognizable and traditional feel. I probably would have put Penn State second behind the Wolverines for best unis. Iowa is certainly among the Big Ten's top half, but I'm pretty sure most people outside Des Moines would pick Michigan's threads over the Hawkeyes'.

Derek from Glen Gardner, N.J., writes: In your last mailbag you mentioned that you thought the BigEast was deeper than the MWC. I have to agree with you, but what I believe you forgot was that BigEast teams have the ability to tell recruits that they can contend for a BCS game year-in and year-out. If the MWC was able to do that for the next 5 years, do you think the BigEast would still be deeper?

Adam Rittenberg: Having a BCS berth as a carrot for recruits certainly would help the Mountain West's bottom rung. I've never understood why San Diego State couldn't be a powerhouse, given its proximity to top recruits. Wyoming and UNLV seem like tough places to win, but both programs have shown flashes of promise. There is potential throughout the Mountain West, but the same can be said for the Big East. Syracuse won't be down for much longer, and Louisville has shown an ability to win in the past. The two leagues would be pretty close in the scenario you present, and the Mountain West might get the edge.

Ricky from Bloomington, Ind., writes: I was wondering what your thoughts were on the news that IU running back Marcus Thigpen would not be invited to the NFL Combine. While his numbers weren't great, he did average 6.7 ypc on a bad team, showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and he has top-end speed that merits at least a training camp invite. Should he have gotten an invite?

Adam Rittenberg: I could certainly add Thigpen's name to my list of combine snubs. But the reality is he never fully became a featured running back at IU. He did a nice job as a senior, but the coaches always seemed hesitant to give him the ball more than 20 times a game, likely because of his size. Quarterback Kellen Lewis finished the season with only one fewer carry than Thigpen, and Lewis was banged up for much of the fall. Had Thigpen continued to evolve as one of the nation's best kick returners, as he was in 2006, he might have earned an invite to the combine. Still, he has the speed to catch on as a third-down back or a return specialist in the NFL.

Jeremy from Colorado writes: Hey Adam, Do you think Derrick Williams could have an impact like Santonio Holmes in the NFL? They seem pretty comparable athletically and explosively and it seems Holmes is making a name for himself with his Super Bowl performance. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: That's a great call, Jeremy. Size wise, there's certainly a similarity between Holmes and Williams, and both have been effective on returns. Williams really came on strong this season and played his best football at the end of his career. He might not have reached the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived as the nation's No. 1 recruit, but most Penn State fans will remember Williams fondly. Holmes would be a good player for Williams to model himself after at the next level.

Matt from Green, Ohio, writes: Adam, great job on the blog. How much improved do you think the Big Ten will be next year in overall quality as a conference? I mean Ohio State and Penn State will surely continue to sustain annual sucess, as will Michigan State this coming season. Iowa is back in the mix as well. Northwestern is visibly on the rise with [Pat] Fitzgerald doing great thing there. I think Illinois will be back near the team they were two years ago too. Michigan and Wisconsin are big wild cards here, but both have the potential to be much improved from last year. Same goes for Purdue. Somehow I just don't forsee Minnesota or Indiana being very good, and would predict them near the bottom of the conference next year (despite Minnesota improving in recent years). I know that with the Big Ten really lacking last year it can only get better but I think it can be very good. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Matt. Ohio State and Penn State certainly enter 2009 at the top of the league, though both teams have some question marks. If the Buckeyes fill some holes on defense and rally behind an improved Terrelle Pryor, they should be the favorites to win the conference. Penn State lost some key pieces on the offensive and defensive lines but brings back linebacker Sean Lee and others. The schedule favors the Lions as well, with both Iowa and Ohio State visiting Beaver Stadium. I really like what Iowa has coming back on defense, but the Hawkeyes must prove themselves on the road. Those three teams are at the top heading into the fall, and the middle features Northwestern, Michigan State, Illinois, Minnesota and maybe Michigan. I've got some questions about Wisconsin coming off a down year, and both Minnesota and Michigan are mysteries with some new coaches and new personnel. I do think the league will be better overall, but there needs to be upgrades at the quarterback spot after a very subpar 2008.