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Michael from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Adam, if you had to pick a team from the BIG other than Ohio State who could compete for a national title this season, who would it be? I realize OSU is the strongest option, but hopefully there might be another team (or teams) who you could make an argument for without using too many supporting statements that start with "if" or "with a little luck".
Adam Rittenberg: Michael, the other team would be your hometown Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it's hard for me to make a case for a national title run without some qualifying statements. There are too many question marks on defense, and I don't think Nebraska's wild/erratic style -- lots of points, lots of turnovers -- translates into championships of any kind. So "if" Nebraska cuts down significantly on the fumbles and uses the first two months of the season to mature on defense, it has a chance to run the table during the regular season. The defense will need to overcome inexperience with greater talent and overall depth.
The big plus for Nebraska is a schedule that lends itself to a young team maturing. UCLA might be the only team that can outscore the Huskers in the first seven games. Nebraska's season comes down to November, and if the Huskers can win at the Big House and Beaver Stadium, a 12-0 mark is possible. The Huskers then would have to beat the Leaders champ, most likely Ohio State, in Indy. Nebraska doesn't look like a national title contender, but the schedule could help Big Red along the way to a potential surprise run.
Sly from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam -- I had a question about bye weeks. Assuming a bye week is positive (an arguable assumption), which three B1G teams would you say are most fortunate, and which three were most screwed (e.g., ones that have more high-level opponents coming off bye weeks)?
Adam Rittenberg: Sly, my view is that bye weeks are typically overvalued. There really isn't much correlation to wins after open weeks. It actually has been more of a detriment in some seasons for Big Ten squads. Bye weeks undoubtedly help when key injuries surface, as players have an extra week to recover. This season features the double bye, so Big Ten teams will have two open Saturdays. I tend to like some spacing between off weeks and to have one around Nov. 1.
Let's break it down ...
Michigan State: The Spartans get one open week after completing non-league play with Notre Dame, before opening the Big Ten season with Iowa. The other open week follows the always emotion-charged rivalry game against Michigan. The Spartans have two weeks to prepare before road games against Nebraska and Northwestern.
Indiana: Like MSU, Indiana gets its first bye after non-league play is complete, giving Kevin Wilson's crew two weeks to prepare for the Big Ten opener against Penn State. The second off week comes following consecutive road games against Michigan and Michigan State, a time when IU likely needs time to heal.
Northwestern: The Wildcats also get their first bye following the completion of non-league play. They'll have two weeks to prepare for a huge home showdown against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The second open week comes in the middle of the November grind, following a road trip to Nebraska and before key division home games against Michigan and Michigan State. It should provide a nice breather.
Nebraska: Both open weeks come during a four-week span in Nebraska's easy part of the schedule (late Sept./early Oct.). The Huskers would be better served to have an off week during their November grind, when they play Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
Penn State: Like Nebraska, Penn State gets both of its open weeks really early in the season (Weeks 5 and 8). Attrition could be a factor for a Lions team playing with reduced scholarships, and PSU really could have benefited from an off week during November, when it faces Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Illinois: Sense a pattern here? Illinois will have two open weeks before it plays two Big Ten games. That means Tim Beckman's shaky crew must go through the meat of the conference schedule without a break.
Will from Hoboken, N.J., writes: Hey Adam -- heading into this season, I am getting this mentality that the B1G is in a down year. Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa all have to get over their own humps to see how "good" they are. Ohio State's schedule is a little weak this season. I can't help but have a "I hope they put up a good fight" mentality about Penn State, as their scholarship reduction takes effect this season. Northwestern is a classic underdog story and I'll be rooting for them to do well and am excited to see them potentially beat some of the powerhouse teams. I love B1G football and am an alumnus of a B1G school, but am I delusional about this upcoming season?
Adam Rittenberg: Will, I agree there are some significant question marks throughout most of the league, but it's hard to say this is a down year after 2012, which was pretty disastrous for the Big Ten aside from Ohio State's 12-0 run, and even that came under the cloud of NCAA sanctions. The Big Ten had an 8-5 champion in Wisconsin and two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) were barred from postseason play. It totally flopped in non-league play -- aside from Northwestern and Ohio State -- and didn't do much in the bowls. Can't get more “down” than 2012.
While I don't think the Big Ten will unseat the SEC this season, there's a decent chance the league improves on its performance from 2012. Teams like Michigan and Michigan State certainly could win more games, and both Ohio State and Nebraska could enter November undefeated and very much in the national discussion. Indiana and Minnesota both have a chance to improve in Year 3 under their respective coaches, and remember that Wisconsin returns 25 seniors on a team that knows how to win Big Ten titles. Sure, there's transition in Madison, but former coach Bret Bielema had been pointing to 2013 as a breakthrough year even before the 2012 season.
Carmen Ohio from Madison, Wis., writes: Do you think it looks better to schedule an elite team from what is currently called a non-AQ conference, or a team from the lower tier of a power conference? For example, last season only Michigan and Wisconsin played two non-conference teams that ended the year in the top-20, but people constantly use Bucky as an example of weak scheduling. Do you think that this perception was due to the fact it was non-traditional powers Utah State and Oregon State? Would it have resonated louder to have scheduled Kentucky, Virginia, Colorado and Kansas?
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Carmen, and it speaks to the trickiness of non-league scheduling, which is typically done so far in advance that, in many cases, it's a total crapshoot as to how good/bad the teams turn out to be. Wisconsin plays Alabama to open the 2015 season. It's pretty safe to assume the Tide will be very good. Utah State, meanwhile, likely turned out to be a lot better than when Wisconsin scheduled the Aggies, typically an FBS bottom-feeder. Wisconsin deserves credit for its 2013 nonconference schedule (Arizona State, BYU), as well as its much more aggressive approach in the future. But it's important to put things into context when evaluating schedules. When Ohio State scheduled Cal, the Bears were a top-20 program. Now they're rebuilding. That's the way it goes. It's important to evaluate nonconference scheduling approaches -- over a longer span -- rather than schedules in an individual season.
Taylor from Baltimore writes: I've been wondering what is the status of Monty Madaris? He was the best WR recruit for MSU that year coming out of high school, according to ESPN. I know he battled injury, but I wasn't under the impression that it was career ending. He's still listed on the roster, which needs as many playmakers as it can get at that position. Will he ever play a down at MSU? Has he been progressing similarly to the way Burbridge and Fowler have improved this offseason?
Adam Rittenberg: I haven't heard much about Madaris so far in camp, other than that he's in the morass of Spartan wideouts hoping to break through this season. Madaris and Macgarrett Kings Jr. are often mentioned together as two talented young wideouts who could step up, much like Aaron Burbridge did in the second half of the 2012 season. Madaris had a high ankle sprain that limited him last summer and eventually led to a redshirt. We know Michigan State needs help there, but there hasn't been much, at least to this point, about Madaris emerging.
Herky's My Hero from Okoboji, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, just a thought on Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes. A lot of people are calling for KF's head if he has a bad season. Sure he has had a few bad years, but I think we are underestimating his long tenure at Iowa and the potential attributes of being the Grandad of coaches in the Bigten. What if he takes on the stigma that Paterno had at Penn State? Sure it is ways down the line, but isn't it possible for him to coach at Iowa for another 20+ years? In comparison, Paterno had a few bad stretches, for example from 2000-2004 Paterno was 26-33 overall and 16 -24 in the Big Ten. That's a horrendous stretch, but he still was a great coach. I say we lighten up on KF and realize that he could become a coaching legend among the Big ten and college football. Overall KF is 100-74 and 59-52 in the big ten, with two Big Ten championships, a plethora of solid NFL players, and some great bowl wins. Such coaching stability is unprecedented in today's NCAA and could easily become our biggest recruiting attribute.
Adam Rittenberg: Everyone who evaluates Ferentz's entire tenure objectively would conclude that he has had a very successful tenure at Iowa and boosted the program's regional and national profile. You make some really good points about the need to be patient and ride out the ups and downs rather than changing coaches every 3-6 years after the first sign of trouble. I actually talked recently with Ferentz about this, and he touched on the value of longevity at a program like Iowa.
"In Iowa, people understand that sometimes the best answer is finding solutions and working on those solutions, rather than worrying about making people walk the plank," he said. "That's a direct opposite of the way our society's going right now, which is one of the reasons I love working at Iowa. I think they get that."
I also asked him about keeping the message fresh after a stretch where Iowa clearly has lost momentum.
"If you change jobs every six years, you don't have to worry about freshness. There have been some really good coaches who have had a track record of staying somewhere typically 5-7 years, and maybe part of the motivation there is so their message doesn't get stale. Because that definitely can happen and does happen. So if you choose not to be a vagabond or an opportunist, or you choose to stay somewhere, then yeah, you constantly have to evaluate how you present, how you market, how you package, whatever term you want to use. But I also believe the things that were good two years ago were good 10 years ago, they were good 30 years ago. And if you go the other direction, they'll still be good two years from now, 10 years from now or 30 years from now. That doesn't change."
All that said, like any coach, he needs to be held accountable, especially because of the big money he's making. It's important Iowa takes a step in a positive direction this fall.
Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: The Big Ten has had its struggles in the nonconference recently. What do you expect to see from the conference in this season’s non-league games? Does the B1G have enough high-profile games to change its "down" perception before conference play starts?
Adam Rittenberg: Your second question really is the key one, Matt. Are there enough big-deal nonconference games to boost perception? The answer is, unfortunately, no. If the Big Ten beats up on Notre Dame, the story will be more about Notre Dame going downhill after a nightmarish offseason than the Big Ten being on the upswing. Wins against Pac-12 teams like Arizona State (Wisconsin visits there in Week 3) or UCLA (Nebraska hosts the Bruins in Week 3) could help a little, but there aren't enough games with the SEC on the docket (thanks, Vanderbilt) and not enough games against preseason top 15 opponents. The non-league schedule could hurt the Big Ten, but I don't know it can really help the league's perception.