Big Ten Thursday mailbag

I'm heading off for a long weekend in the mountains with the wife. But first: your emails, answered.

Rich from Des Moines writes: Brian, I'd be jumping for joy if the B1G actually wrote into their rules and bylaws that teams are forbidden from playing any team from a lower division. An agreement among ADs is not binding. Someone (probably Wisconsin) is bound break this agreement by the end of the decade. Am I too cynical?

Brian Bennett: Dare we say the words "gentlemen's agreement?" It's unclear at this point whether the policy against scheduling FCS opponents will be an ironclad rule for the league, but member schools seem to be on board with this idea and might incur the wrath of their brethren should they break it. (An unpleasant phone call from Jim Delany, for instance). But it's fair to wonder what a program might do if an opponent pulls out of a scheduled game on short notice. It's hard to fill schedules without a lot of advance planning, so I could see a situation in which a team is forced to fill out its docket with an FCS club. But, hopefully, that would be the only exception.

Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: What is wrong with cream puff schedules? Kansas State would probably not have reached number one in the rankings last year without a history of weak schedules. Bill Snyder and a few others have used that plan to teach their players about winning. The bowl eligibility is necessary for the extra practice time. Over four years, that could be nearly three months of extra practice.

Brian Bennett: There's some truth in what you say, Craig. Minnesota and Purdue might not have gone bowling in 2012 if they hadn't each beaten an FCS club along the way. For developing programs like those and Indiana, scheduling as many near-lock wins is important. If the Big Ten were to move to a 10-game conference schedule, each team will have to win at least four conference games and then beat two FBS opponents just to qualify for a bowl. That's significantly tougher than what we've got now. Even a nine-game league schedule will require three league wins; Minnesota went bowling last year with only two, much like Illinois did in 2011.

So, yeah, the hill is about to get steeper for many Big Ten teams, which could also put more pressure on coaches and lead to more turnover. The elimination of FCS opponents alone shouldn't make for wildly more difficult schedules, as there are bottom-feeding Sun Belt, MAC and other FBS chaff to kick around. But the demand to schedule those teams may really grow now, and the prices for buying a home game against such programs could rise even higher.

Tony T. from Renovo, Penn., writes: Hi BB, love the blog! I like the idea of a B1G alliance with another conference, but who would the alliance be with? It probably wouldn't be with the SEC because if there was continued SEC success against the B1G, it would only be further bad pub. The B12 only has 10 teams. The P12 alliance fell through once already. So that basically leaves the ACC, but do you think that the ACC would really want an alliance seeing how the B1G poached their teams?

Brian Bennett: The ACC makes the most sense. Obviously, Maryland could stage reunions against former ACC opponents, although there might be enough bad blood for the ACC to say no thanks. Teams like Penn State and Rutgers would get guaranteed Eastern opponents. Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech could bring some appealing matchups, although the attractive opponents fall off pretty quickly after that. An ACC partnership could also serve another goal in giving the Big Ten some more exposure in the East and the South, two places it's hoping to gain more footholds. The two leagues already have a successful basketball partnership, though lining up football schedules is considerably tougher. The Big 12 could be an option, and having only 10 teams vs. the Big Ten's 14 might actually provide an advantage for scheduling since there would be flexibility in not needing every team to participate every year, and Iowa already plays Iowa State.

Sean H. from East Lansing writes: As a lifelong Spartan fan, the possibility of being in a different division than Michigan and potentially risking losing that rivalry was unthinkable, but reading your blog has convinced me otherwise. Allowing us to continue our new rivalry with the Badgers and having more balanced divisions (not to mention not having to get through Ohio State every year for the championship) would be beneficial to us and the B1G. My only question is how do you think having the Michigan game be the only protected crossover in the league would affect the rest of the rotation, given we would play one less rotating game per year?

Brian Bennett: I think having just one protected crossover still works. Remember that in a nine- conference game scenario, you'd be playing three crossover games per season. There might be some competitive balance issues since Michigan and Michigan State figure to be strong teams most years and would always have to face each other. Those teams would also get slightly less variety than others. But there should still be enough of a rotation to make things pretty fair. And it sure beats having a whole bunch of protected crossovers like we have now, some of which (Michigan State-Indiana, Iowa-Purdue) make little sense.

DepaulNU from Chicago writes: I've been following the B1G Rankings for the 2012 post season. I thought Jeff Budzien (K, Northwestern) might break into the bottom of list. He was nearly perfect on the year, missing only a long kick against Nebraska and 100% for extra points. He also set the Northwestern single game record for field goals made against Boston College. What does it take for a kicker to make the list?

Brian Bennett: Budzien did have a terrific year, but it's awfully hard for us to justify placing specialists on a list of the top 25 players. Nebraska's Brett Maher didn't make the list after a 2011 season when he won both kicker and punter of the year honors in the league. No offense to special teamers, but with a list this exclusive, we're almost always going to give the edge to offensive or defensive standouts.

Jim from Albuquerque writes: Who in your mind has more pressure coming into this year, for their wins and losses at the end of last year, Michigan or Nebraska?

Brian Bennett: Good question. There is pressure every year at both places, because both programs expect to win. Michigan is coming off an 8-5 season and still hasn't won a Big Ten championship since 2004, which is an unacceptable drought in Ann Arbor. Nebraska won 10 games last year but ended on a sour note; the Huskers still haven't won a league title since 1999. Of the two, I'd say there's more pressure on Big Red. Brady Hoke bought some time with an 11-2 Sugar Bowl season two years ago and with the way he has recruited. If Michigan falls short of a division or conference crown this season, Maize and Blue fans won't be happy but will likely still feel optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, the pressure is rising on Bo Pelini to deliver a breakthrough season in Lincoln. The Huskers have collapsed too many times on the big stage, and fan support for Pelini would further erode with a disappointing 2013.

Trey from Maple Heights, Ohio, writes: Looking at Ohio States and U-M's schedule, whats the early chances of back-to back :The Games." I'm thinking 80%, but that's just me. Also will Ohio State's defensive line be able to play good enough to break through M's good offensive line (twice) and ultimately an SEC line?

Brian Bennett: Right now, you'd have to say Ohio State is a heavy favorite in the Leaders Division, with Penn State ineligible for the Big Ten title game and Wisconsin going through a coaching change. The Legends is much deeper, at least on paper. So the chances for a Michigan-Ohio State rematch may depend on the Wolverines beating the Buckeyes at the Big House. Ohio State could conceivably have its division wrapped up by then, while Michigan might not be able to afford a loss. As for your other question, it's a stretch to call the Wolverines' line good yet; that unit will be very young in the middle, though the return of Taylor Lewan at tackle was huge. Likewise, Ohio State's defensive line is a question mark, but both teams should have those situations figured out by game No. 12.

Bryson M. from Madison writes: My question is about the state of my Badger Football program. Although Bret was as terrible of a "gameday" coach as I have ever seen, will our program still remain near the top of the conference? Our program was built on developing players to fit into our schemes and Bret did a heck of a job in doing that. Does Gary have the track record to keep that going? I know we wont ever have a top 10 or 20 recruiting class, but will Gary be able to develop players as well as Bret did?

Brian Bennett: Whatever you might think of Bret Bielema, you have to praise the job he and his staff did at player development. Their success at churning out national award winners, All-Americans and NFL draft picks despite never having star-studded recruiting classes was mighty impressive. Can Gary Andersen do the same? Well, I know this. He led Utah State to an 11-2 record and No. 16 finish in the AP poll last season. Suffice it to say that the No. 3 program in Utah isn't hauling in a lot of recruits that the analysts are drooling over. While there's no guarantee that Andersen will repeat Bielema's developmental achievements, his track record in that regard speaks for itself. And that's exactly what Wisconsin will need as Ohio State grabs more and more talent.