- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Husker Country today, Hawkeye Country tomorrow. Wonder if I'll get stopped at customs.
Nate from Easley, S.C., writes: I really like the idea of a spring scrimmage but, other than injuries, I have one major concern. The current system is slanted towards benefitting those with a good pre-season ranking, so, if voters took the results of a glorified scrimmage into account, wouldn't it further skew the pre-season rankings? (Granted, voters pre-season ranking are already perception-based and not entirely accurate.) Said another way, do you think a scrimmage "Win" would take on more value than player development? Would two highly perceived teams want to to scrimmage if it hurt their stock going into the season?
Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is a good question. Let me first say I despise preseason rankings. As much fun as is it to see where teams that haven't played games for nine months are subjectively rated in August, it really hurts a sport where there's such limited access to the national title game. My solution is to release the first polls about Oct. 15, but I don't know if it'll ever happen. That said, my hope is that spring scrimmages wouldn't have an overly significant impact on perception. Most teams aren't going to scrimmage their top players for very long, or risk injury to their starting quarterbacks. You can glean a few things about depth, potential breakout players, etc., but how a team performs in these scrimmages wouldn't be a great indicator of how good they'd be in the fall. So my hope is that the perception factor wouldn't be there, and it wouldn't affect whether teams scrimmage or how the polls turn out.
A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: I agree that Wisconsin needs someone to step up on the defensive line, as well as more speed in general on defense, but I'm not sure I understand the criticism of the lack of receivers. Last year, did the Badgers have anybody we knew about other than Nick Toon? The fact is they almost never run formations with more than two receivers, and I don't think it will be hard to find one player to fill that role between Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe, A.J. Jordan, or anybody else that could potentially step up.
Adam Rittenberg: A.J., I agree that Toon was the big name entering 2011, but Jared Abbrederis also had shown promise after recording 20 receptions in 2010. Wisconsin felt pretty good about Abby, and while some might not have expected him to match Toon's production, he and Toon looked like a solid 1-2 punch. You're right that Wisconsin rarely uses more than three wideouts at once, and with tight end Jacob Pedersen back, along with Abbrederis, the Badgers should be OK. But if either guy gets hurt, I'd be very concerned. Duckworth made a great catch in the Big Ten title game, and he could be that next man in. Yet he and the others have a lot to prove. Mannaseh Garner is another intriguing player. Ideally, Wisconsin wants to be able to go four or five deep at receiver, so it'll have insurance if there are injuries.
Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: In every practice update I read the players talk about the attitude or "swag" this team is carrying with them this spring. Is that something you can sense with them? Also, how big do you think the strides Taylor Martinez has taken actually are? Thanks Adam!
Adam Rittenberg: Definitely, Ryan. I felt Nebraska was a confident team last spring, particularly on defense, but the Huskers' swagger seems to be reaching another level this year. They feel they have greater chemistry and camaraderie now, and it can't hurt that Bo Pelini and his staff have recruited everyone in the program. They also feel they'll be able to execute their schemes a lot better on both sides of the ball. Nebraska talked a lot last season about how different its two-gap defense is from what we see in the Big Ten. But for various reasons, including the first go-round through a new league, the advantages within the scheme didn't surface as often as most folks thought. There's a much greater comfort level on offense, as Nebraska is not only in Year 2 as a Big Ten member, but Year 2 of coordinator Tim Beck's scheme. Spring is always a time to be hopeful and optimistic, and you should want your team to have high expectations. Will Nebraska be projected as a national title contender outside Lincoln? No. But the players and coaches are shooting for that goal, and if a few things fall right, you never know.
Jon from Murfreesboro, Tenn., writes: I'm not an Iowa fan, but if I was, I would be expecting more from the program. With the amount of money Ferentz is getting paid and the minimal success he has had there, I just don't get it. Is there a coach in the Big Ten who is getting paid so handsomely for doing less than Ferentz? In 13 years in Iowa City he's had 4 ten win seasons and 2 conference titles, not exactly killing it. Outsider looking in, it sure seems like Iowa is just throwing cash at him and accept his mediocrity in the hopes that he stays and doesn't bolt for one of NFL jobs his name gets rumored about every year.
Adam Rittenberg: Jon, this is one of the topics I want to address when I'm in Iowa City this week. The thing that jumps out to everyone nationally about Iowa is Ferentz's salary. People acknowledge the wins totals, which are pretty respectable, but wonder why Iowa can't get more despite paying its coach top-10 money. With Iowa, you have to look at the bigger picture. There are some inherent disadvantages there, namely location for recruiting, that will always make it tough to be consistently elite. Iowa has some tradition, but it doesn't have the national allure of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. What Ferentz can sell is the ability to get players to the NFL. The pro personnel evaluators love Iowa, and if you're a good recruit with the potential to get a lot better in college, Iowa isn't a bad place to go. But it's certainly fair to expect more from Ferentz, especially at a time when Wisconsin, a comparable program, has reached back-to-back Rose Bowls. As for the constant NFL buzz, it has worked in Ferentz's favor with the school. But Iowa also doesn't want to become a North Carolina or a Washington State, programs that backslide after losing successful coaches (Mack Brown, Mike Price).
Andrew from Harrisonville, Mo., writes: I love the blog Adam, especially your coverage of the Huskers. And when I was watching your video with Ben Cotton, I noticed how much bigger he was then you. Do you feel small when your in a room full of football players?
Adam Rittenberg: No doubt, Andrew. Clearly bad genetics. It's especially tough with offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends and wide receivers. It's why I'll miss guys like Edwin Baker and Jay Valai -- I was at eye-level with them. If your team has a lineman or a tight end who looks about my height on the videos, you might want to get worried.
Chris from Chicago writes: Given the relative depth/speed at linebacker and the trouble developing a consistent pass-rush with the D-line, did you get any indication during your visits to Evanston that Northwestern might be shifting to a 3-4? Seems like it might be well employed there....
Adam Rittenberg: Chris, it's interesting. When Pat Fitzgerald first became head coach, he mentioned several times on record that the 3-4 was the team's future on defense. But the plans have changed, and I don't see the 3-4 on the horizon in Evanston. Although the coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism at the linebacker spot, there aren't many proven players aside from the three returning starters (David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Collin Ellis). Although the defensive line has some major question marks after recording a league-low 17 sacks in 2011, I get the sense the coaches like their depth there and expect better things this fall. The fact is Northwestern's linebacker play has dropped off a bit after a nice run in the first part of the last decade. I don't know if this is the time to make a switch to the 3-4.
Goldy Gopher from the Frozen Four writes: Do you see Optimus Prime (Rasheed Hageman) having a breakout season making the Gopher run defense respectable?
Adam Rittenberg: Ah, Ra'Shede Hageman. How long have we been hearing he's on the verge of stardom? I remember former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster raving about Hageman a few years ago. Perhaps this is the year he turns the corner, and Minnesota could really use a dominant pass-rusher to emerge. He's a specimen at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and he delivered a big hit at a recent practice, but he has only 18 career tackles in 20 career games. So he's still very much unproven in my eyes. But he's only a redshirt junior, so he has time to make strides, and should be better off in the second year under coordinator Tracy Claeys. Minnesota should be OK at linebacker, but it needs several players to make big strides up front and in the secondary. Hageman could be a building block for the Gophers.
Zac from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam, when will ESPN choose the B1G night games?
Adam Rittenberg: It varies each season, Zac, but the primetime schedule usually comes out in late April or early May. Last year, it came out on May 19, a little later than usual. But there's a larger demand for night games now, and the Big Ten is dealing with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network making picks. I'll bug my pal Mark Rudner in the Big Ten office and see if I can get him moving. So many great choices this year!
Bryan from Michigan writes: Adam,What are the odds of Michigan beating Alabama the first game on the year and then going undefeated for the next 11 games and then wining the big ten championship game and then playing for the national title.
Adam Rittenberg: The Alabama game provides an excellent barometer for Michigan. Are the Wolverines on the cusp of being elite again, or were they a good team with a great record in 2011? We should find out a lot at JerryWorld. People can talk all day about the players Alabama has lost, but any time you beat the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban, it's a signature win in my book. I regard Saban as by far the best coach in the nation, and the Alabama program as a notch above the rest. Looking for an elite program in a competitive environment? Look at the Tide. So if Michigan can beat Alabama, the sky's the limit, although the Wolverines' road doesn't get easier with trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. It'll be tough to go undefeated with this schedule.