Big Ten Thursday mailbag

I'm currently in the midst of Big Ten media day madness but found some time to answer your questions. Let's do this:

Pete from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I'm going to spare you my opinion of the PSU scandal as everyone has one and it matters little what my opinion is. I do have an issue with some of Dr. Emmert's comments, though, and wanted to get your take on them. He mentioned "erosion of academic values" and "athletic culture taking precedence over academic culture." He made it clear PSU is to be an example to other universities (and I believe explicitly said that) but these comments don't seem applicable to PSU football student athletes. I don't want to speak to Paterno's legacy but the evidence of his student athletes academic accomplishments is well documented. A change in culture appears absolutely necessary (in college football in general, too) but football over academics was incorrectly applied to the PSU scandal was it not?

Brian Bennett: Pete, you make some good points about the academic culture already in place at Penn State. Few schools do as well in graduating their players and excelling in the classroom as the Nittany Lions. I think the real issue here is how football has become too important on many campuses and how winning coaches become like cult leaders. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spoke about the problem of "concentration of power" during Monday's conference call with reporters:

"It's a combination of strong personality, lots of success and some celebrity that comes together in a way that challenges and undermines the controls that are in place to make sure institutional values are dominant and not subordinate to intercollegiate athletics."

In other words, coaches become bigger than the university. You could argue that happened at Ohio State, and it certainly was the case at Penn State with Joe Paterno. The NCAA's apparent solution to this at Penn State is simply to make sure the Nittany Lions don't have the proper tools to compete at a high level for a while. But there's nothing to stop it from happening elsewhere. Hopefully, this entire situation will give schools pause in the future. But with all the money and importance placed on football -- which will only grow in the new playoff system -- I seriously doubt it.

Justin K. from Baltimore writes: I was curious to get your opinion on the ethical considerations of going after current Penn State players and recruits. When I first heard the news that PSU players could transfer freely I thought, "Sweet! Maybe my Spartans can pick up some new players." When I recognized my thought, I quickly rejected and rebuked it. It was almost as if I had thought, "Well, it stinks what happened to those kids, but at least we get a good lineman out of the deal." That thought disgusts me and as a result I hope that MSU doesn't pick up any of Penn State's players. Cheering a touchdown or tackle from that player would seem like cheering that any of this ever happened. I don't want the university that I love to benefit from this scandal. I understand that many teams in Penn State's recruiting territory will benefit from the Nittany Lion's weakened recruiting presence, but stealing players from their current roster seems like too much of an immediate benefit from the scandal ...

I find the idea of an open season on Penn State's players disturbing. Further, I find the thought of fans getting giddy about their new pick ups to be disgusting, shallow, and self-centered. Isn't the whole point of these penalties to prove that sports has been elevated too high in the minds of Americans? Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Some interesting points there, Justin. The reports of coaches -- including, apparently, much of the Illinois staff -- hanging around the parking lot of the Lasch Football Building hoping to prey on Penn State players like vultures was very disturbing to me. I understand football is a cutthroat business, but that seems like it's way too much. Now if a Penn State player expresses interest in transferring, then by all means schools should be allowed to make their pitch to him. The NCAA gave Nittany Lions players very liberal transfer options, but schools were still supposed to notify Penn State before contacting players. According to Bill O'Brien, some schools have not cooperated with that very basic agreement. At best, it's unseemly.

I have a much different feeling about other schools trying to poach Penn State recruits. Those prospects have not signed a letter of intent and would have continued to be recruited, anyway. That's just part of the game. Schools would be remiss not to check in on those players, who will not have the opportunity to play for a conference championship or go to a bowl game in their entire collegiate careers.

Jeff from East Lansing writes: There has been a lot of talk about Joe Paterno and the administration and knowing about the 1998 investigation and not acting. But if it was in the hands of the prosecutors, and they found no reason to charge Jerry Sandusky, why would the administration be expected to act? Obviously what happened was a disgusting tragedy, but we live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty. If the prosecutors couldn't find a reason to bring criminal charges, why would Penn State have be expected to find him guilty. I guess that wasn't so quick but I feel like I am missing something and if you could clear it up for me I would really appreciate it.

Brian Bennett: Jeff, there's a very big difference between being innocent and being proven guilty in a court of law. If you had a strong suspicion that a co-worker or a neighbor was sexually abusing children, would you continue to allow that person to come over to your house with other people's children? Or be around your own children? Would you maybe want the rest of the office or the neighborhood to know about it? There's also evidence that Penn State leaders not only failed to act but actively tried to make sure it was not reported. And even if somehow you can say there wasn't enough reason to do anything about the 1998 allegations, how in the world do you explain the lack of action once the 2001 accusations came to light?

Cathy from Pittsburgh, Pa., writes: Regarding Penn State's sanction of vacating all wins since 1998, does that mean that a) the wins only are vacated and the losses remain, b) the wins turn into losses and are counted as such, or c) they vacate both wins and losses as if the seasons never existed? I have never thought about it before and I don't really care about the win-loss record, but the terminology "vacating wins" confuses me a bit. I was just curious.

Brian Bennett: I understand the confusion, Cathy. Vacating wins is a weird punishment and something only the NCAA could dream up. Basically, it means all of Penn State's wins from that period are now gone. The losses do not change. So, for example, last year's team that went 9-4 now would officially be 0-4. Contrary to some tweets and comments I've seen, the teams Penn State beat during that time do not get the victory. As far as series records go, it's as if the games during the vacated period never occurred. Chris Low did a good job of explaining this penalty when Alabama had to vacate some wins. (Here is where I would normally make a joke about the SEC being used to that sort of thing, but the Big Ten isn't exactly in a position of moral superiority at the moment).

Eric H. from Baltimore writes: Now with PSU gone from the postseason for 4 years and OSU gone for one, Wisconsin does have it easy in the Leaders Division. In a perfect world this would be the opportunity for OSU to swap divisions with Nebraska or Iowa to level the playing field, as well as to prevent the imminent disaster that is Michigan and OSU playing in two consecutive weeks. I swear when that happens it will be the maiming of the regular season rivalry. What happens if we split that "2 game series"...where's the rubber match? Neither OSU or Mich will have bragging rights that season, and that's what the rivalry is about, 365 days of bragging rights for the winner, and shame for the loser. Can you really tell the winner of the Big 10 title game matchup that they are champions when they just lost to the same opponent the week earlier? I'd say thats a fair compromise to save the sanctity of the best rivalry ever. The game will lose it's luster if they are not both placed in the same subconference, I'm sure of it.

Brian Bennett: I have to say I'm in full agreement with you here. Penn State will be ineligible to win the division for the next four years and crippled for who knows how much longer. Based on recent performance, that means it will basically be a two-team race every year in the Leaders Division, which greatly increases the chances of an Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the Big Ten title game. I've written before that I think that would be awful for the two teams to play a rematch in consecutive weeks. This is a great opportunity for the Big Ten to realign, and it could be as easy as switching Ohio State and Nebraska, or Michigan and Penn State. That assumes, of course, that Michigan State will maintain its recent level of play, or that Iowa will rise up again. Still, it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be on the table right now.

Keith from Chicago writes: Potential B1G scheduling solution:8 game conference schedule, play games early in the year like SEC.Partner with SEC to create an annual conference challenge. 12 match-ups per season (2 rotating SEC schools get byes each year), 1 match-up per week. The challenge would develop throughout the year with equal home games for each conference. I would love to see an SEC team play "up north" during late November. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I'd love to see it, too, but I'd also love to see me cast as Christina Hendricks' new love interest on "Mad Men." Either way, it ain't going to happen. The SEC has no incentive to enter such an agreement since it already wins national championships every year, and most of its teams are unaware that there exists a country north of the Ohio River. I think a partnership with the ACC makes the most sense if the Big Ten wants to try and rekindle that idea.

Nate from Lincoln writes: Looking back on the games my Huskers lost last year, it seemed we could not contain mobile quarterbacks. Was that a result of lack of speed from the D-line, or poor discipline? Also, which position group needs to make the most improvement for the Huskers to contend for the Legends Division?

Brian Bennett: The Cornhuskers did struggle in games against Russell Wilson and Denard Robinson, but they certainly weren't alone in that regard. Washington's Keith Price had a big day against Nebraska in a loss. Northwestern's Kain Colter also baffled the defense in a surprising upset. I would say that the Huskers lacked dominant playmakers on the edge of the defensive line, which may have contributed somewhat to that. I also think the defense never quite grasped everything Bo Pelini was trying to do, and the players said as much this offseason. Improved discipline and better technique are going to be big keys this year, because I'm not sure the talent level is all that different.

David C. from Zanesville, Ohio, writes: If Ohio State wins the the Big Ten and goes undefeated, the Badgers come in 2nd and Wisconsin wins the conference championship and a bowl game, should Ohio State share the AP national title?

Brian Bennett: It's impossible to say, really, without knowing what else will happen across the country. If there is another undefeated team, especially one that had to go through a conference title game as well as the BCS championship matchup, the Buckeyes would not have a great argument. Their weak nonconference schedule would also do them no favors. Ohio State would have to hope for a bunch of one-loss teams and for the Big Ten to be really strong. But it's all hypothetical, and I don't believe this team is going undefeated.

Confused from Ohio writes: The extreme optimism regarding MSU's OL baffles me. Everyone can agree that Le'Veon Bell is quite good...and their offensive line led him to a last place finish in B1G rushing this past year. Half of them were converted from D-linemen. They have starting experience, so what? They've played bad for a year together, why does that make them good this year? Young and talented is one thing, but that they were not.

Brian Bennett: I disagree with that take, Confused. Yes, Michigan State had bad rushing stats in 2011, but those were a bit misleading. The Spartans relied heavily on their strong passing game, and their offensive line really got better as the year went along. Remember they had injuries early and had to shuffle things around. Here are Michigan State's rushing stats for the final four Big Ten games in 2011:

Iowa: 155 yards

Indiana: 174 yards

Northwestern: 166 yards

Wisconsin: 190 yards

That's quite respectable, especially with as much as the Spartans threw the ball in those games. Now they have six players back who started games last year, plus some promising youngsters. Is it the best O-line in the country? No. But it should be very good and quite possibly the best line Mark Dantonio has had during his tenure.