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Big Ten Thursday mailbag

2/7/2013

There's no better cure for a signing day hangover than the Thursday mailbag.

Brandon from State College, Pa., writes: With a top-25 class, clearly Penn State won't be going away to the extent that many predicted. But how far do you see them falling? The run-on program should help with some depth issues, and although it's not the same quality as an extra 10 scholarship players, the top end talent can hopefully make up for that. Also, from this year forward, any recruit that is redshirted will see at least two bowls. If Penn State continues with classes like this year over the course of the sanctions, and continues to be "bowl eligible," is it not totally reasonable for them to be a top 5 B1G team every year?

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Brandon, and the demise of Penn State may have been exaggerated. Bill O'Brien and his staff have done an amazing job of collecting talent despite the setbacks. The Nittany Lions are not going to be pushovers with guys like Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. The big problems are still going to be depth and youth. With only 65 scholarship players, Penn State won't have the luxury of redshirting too many guys and will likely be forced to play some youngsters before they're quite ready, or else turn to some walk-ons. A rash of injuries in any season could be devastating. And the program simply can't afford to miss on many of its 15 scholarship recruits in the next few years, although there's almost always a handful of guys in every class who don't pan out. The Lions will still be playing with one hand tied behind their back, but that doesn't mean they can't throw some punches.


Matt from Detroit writes: A poster on another site (with more free time than me) did some research and discovered that 6 of the 12 teams in the Big Ten had 7-plus starters injured on the O-Line this year. Those 6 teams were Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, and Minnesota (7), Iowa (8), and MSU with an astounding 9 starters on the OL. To me that looks like a list of the top six disappointing teams in the conference this year (maybe Minn aside due to no expectations). Those were definitely the teams that really struggled on offense for much of the year like MSU, Iowa, Illinois, and even Wisconsin. How much do you think that the bad luck injuries on the OL had to do with the poor offensive showing from those teams? If the OL can stay healthy next year are we looking at possible improvements on offense for State? A steady offensive line is the best thing for a pocket QB like Maxwell and MSU brings back a lot of experience and talent at the position. Or am I just grasping at straws in fear of an offense that was horrible last year and lost it's best player to the draft?

Brian Bennett: That's interesting, and certainly offensive line struggles played a factor for those teams you mentioned. But I don't think it paints the whole picture. For example, Iowa wasn't very good on offense before the offensive line injuries against Penn State. The running game went into the tank after that, but the Hawkeyes were already having all kinds of trouble passing the ball. Michigan State's line problems hurt, but a healthy and strong front wouldn't have suddenly made Andrew Maxwell a precision passer or kept the receivers from dropping balls. Wisconsin's disjointed line came together midway through the season, but the Badgers still couldn't get over the hump in most of their close games. Purdue's defense was really its demise in conference play, and Illinois was bad in every phase of the game. So it's one possible explanation, but not the sole reason.


Rob from New York writes: Based on the new commits that Gary Andersen picked up, it seems like Wisconsin's recruiting focus under Andersen is shifting from Florida to the West/California. Is that just a product of him having already established inroads with this class from his time at Utah State or is this a deliberate plan to have the program look westward?

Brian Bennett: I think that anytime a new coach comes in and only has a month or so to recruit, it's natural for him to look toward the areas he knows best. And for Andersen, that's out west where he -- and many of his assistants -- have spent nearly his entire career. Andersen has said the state of Wisconsin will be his No. 1 priority going forward, and surely he will recruit the Midwest and Ohio and Florida as just about every Big Ten team does. But I do think those previous ties can help the Badgers land a few players from different areas -- offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, in particular, has deep roots in California. That could be a good thing for a program that has to recruit far outside its borders because of its location.


Some Guy from Ohio writes: Brian, regarding your comparison between SEC and B1G recruiting rankings, it has been apparent for the past two years that the B1G is going back to Big 2. If you compare just the recruiting evaluations with either UM or OSU with any SEC school, they hold up very well with any top 2 teams. The difference is that the B1G bottom feeders are getting 0 top 300 guys while only UK has 0 in the SEC. I think Florida, 'Bama, OSU and MICH have comparable quantities of top 150 and top 300 guys. While this lopsidedness may signal doom for Gator Bowl matchups in the future, the fact that the top two B1G teams are recruiting at an elite level should have ramifications for the big national games, once that gets going.

Brian Bennett: I have to point out that Kentucky did wind up with two ESPN 300 guys. Alma mater and all. But your point is well taken. There's very little doubt that of the Big Ten schools, only Michigan and Ohio State are recruiting at a level comparable with the top SEC teams, at least when it comes to star rankings. That doesn't take into account evaluation, coaching and player development, which schools like Michigan State do so well (and well enough to beat Georgia in a bowl game). Recruiting rankings aren't everything, not by a long shot. But the Buckeyes and Wolverines are swimming in a different player pool right now, and with excellent coaching staffs in place that should pay off down the line. I'm not quite ready to declare another 10 Year War or say those two programs will run away from the rest of the Big Ten. But I do think that both should be able to work their way into the national championship mix in the next few years -- and hopefully compete well once they get there.


Derek from East Lansing, Mich., writes: I've looked through the various realignment proposals for east-west divisions and it seems like Michigan State is the key swing school. Which division do you think would be best for Sparty? I could see benefits of both. Playing in the east would allow them to stay in the same division as Michigan and ensure that the rivalry will continue even without protected crossovers. It may also open up recruiting more on the east coast. Playing in the west allows them to continue their newly developed rivalry with Wisconsin and may allow for an easier path to the Big Ten championship.

Brian Bennett: It's a good question. Competitively speaking, I think a potential west division, with teams like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa, would be better for Michigan State than trying to butt heads with Michigan and Ohio State every year for just the division title. Yet you mentioned the Michigan rivalry, and Mark Dantonio recruits heavily in Ohio. Would not playing at Ohio State every other year have a negative impact on those efforts? The Michigan rivalry can be saved via a crossover game. The Spartans will have to determine whether playing with the more western schools -- where, generally, less recruiting talent is located -- is something that's good for them.


Jason L. from Kansas City writes: Brian, I have been reading about support on your blog for the inner-outer realignment plan. But the support is always from a fan of an "inner" team. Have you received any support for this model from a fan of an "outer" team? As a Husker fan, this plan seems silly to me. I don't understand how grouping the teams together that are farthest apart makes any sense. To me, you run the risk of alienating the fan bases of those schools. And a major reason why Nebraska was invited to join the B1G was because of their fan base. In my opinion more Husker fans would travel to Northwestern and Illinois than Maryland and Rutgers. And more fans, means more money for the schools and the conference. So, please tell me how this plan makes sense for the "outer" schools.

Brian Bennett: Jason, I have heard some support for that plan. Here are the benefits for the "outies:" Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota would be grouped together, which makes perfect sense for those schools and their rivalries. That's two easy road trips per year for each team's fan base. The other outer schools would be Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Well, Nebraska fans already like playing Penn State, and the other western schools would as well. They would also get guaranteed access to the East Coast and be able to open up some recruiting pipelines there. The drawback to a true east-west split is that the western schools are a little more isolated from the talent-rich areas. Yes, the road trips would be substantial, but in reality, your team would only play one or two road trips in the East per season.


David from Delaware writes: With regards to protected crossover games, I don't understand the need to force the issue. If Michigan State and Michigan get put into different divisions, then absolutely protect that series. But why force protected crossovers for teams like Penn State who have no real rivalry worth protecting? For example, using the current set up, Michigan and Ohio State would both have one protected and one rotating crossover, while Purdue would have two rotating crossovers. Unless there's some strong desire to preserve Iowa-Purdue match-ups that I'm unaware of. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I couldn't agree more, which is why in my proposal I said Michigan and Michigan State should be the only protected crossover. Adam covered the topic well in this post. If the Big Ten aligns the divisions well, there will be far less need for protected crossovers to preserve rivalries. Then the league will be free to bring in much more variety in interdivision play.