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Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Big Ten mailblog

By Adam Rittenberg

Mail time. Let's do this.

Joel from Bismarck, N.D., writes: Last fall I seem to remember you saying that the league parity hurt its national perception. When it came to B1G basketball, however, it seemed analysts were touting its parity as an example of how strong the conference was (e.g., every team in the bottom half of the standings beat someone in the top half). My question is if you perceive different standards being used in the sports, and why do you think it is? Or is it less a matter of which sport is being analyzed but which league, and commentators will grab onto whatever stat they want to in order to reinforce their own perceptions (e.g., the B1G football teams underperform)?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, while some analysts will apply different standards whenever it's convenient, there are some important differences between Big Ten football in 2011 and Big Ten basketball in 2011-12. For starters, the league had more nationally elite teams in basketball and two squads -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- considered legitimate Final Four contenders. Aside from Wisconsin, no Big Ten football team ever fit into this category in terms of national perception. Another difference is that football had one of the worst BCS programs (Indiana) and another (Minnesota) that looked like the worst early in the season. While Big Ten basketball had its doormats as well -- Nebraska and Penn State -- those teams also rose up to record some nice victories, even in league play.

Finally, one important difference is that basketball doesn't have one dominant conference like football does with the SEC, which happens to be the Big Ten's chief rival. I really think if another league was dominating college football -- Big 12, Pac-12, etc. -- the Big Ten's perception wouldn't be quite as bad as it is with the other bigwig conference winning championships year after year.


Dave from Delafield, Wis., writes: Adam,Thank you for your commentary on the atmosphere in Boston for the Wisconsin/Ohio State games.I've been to NCAA Basketball Tournament games and several bowl games, and I don't know how anyone that has personally attended both could possibly want a football playoff.The early rounds of the basketball tournament feature half-full arenas, and small numbers of fans from both teams, along with plenty of locals that tend to cheer for the underdog, or the team from the next town over. Unless a team is local or a great game takes place, there is just no electricity. I would hate to see a team that won a conference title, have what was a dream season end in a dull, half-full stadium, because fans are waiting until a bigger game to travel to, or because the game is a home game for a superior opponent. (Think of UCLA at Oregon last year in the Pac-12 title game.)No matter what round of the tournament it is, until the final game is played, there is always the next game. Syracuse players and fans didn't have long to celebrate their win against Wisconsin because they had to prepare for Ohio State. A bowl victory, no matter what bowl, is almost euphoric. It is what makes a good season great, and it sets the tone for the entire spring.

Adam Rittenberg: Totally agree, Dave. I remember covering the NCAA tournament first and second rounds in Minneapolis in 2009. First of all, college basketball in domed football stadiums is never good, especially when it's not even a regional round. The stadium was never going to be close to full. Although Michigan State played there, we had only one "local" team in North Dakota State, which played admirably in the first round but fell short. At that point, the dome pretty much emptied out and there was very little atmosphere for the remaining games.

Any football team strong enough to qualify for a playoff -- most likely a four-team deal -- should play in an atmosphere fitting the significance of the game. Even if it's on the road. I'd rather see a Big Ten team play in a packed SEC stadium for a playoff than watch the game at a neutral site in front of 35,000 people. The event deserves better.


Chris from New York writes: "He knows his strengths and doesn't try to coach everybody. He'll coach the defensive line, he'll coach the defense, but he's comfortable with his role and he's very good at his role." - Gerry Dinardo about Brady HokeHow come this exact sentence was such a nightmare for Rodriguez? What's the difference that Hoke gets it as a compliment and Rodriguez gets it as a major diss? Is it only success? If the offense struggled a lot this year would people be saying Hoke can't only pay attention to the defense?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I think there were different standards for Rodriguez, which could have been changed had he had more success on the field at Michigan. Rodriguez's work with Michigan's offense had little to do with his firing, as the Wolverines set records in his final season. But his handling of the defense, particularly when it came to hiring coordinators and assistants, ultimately led to his downfall in Ann Arbor. The perception that Rodriguez didn't care about the defense is false, but his decision-making regarding with the unit left much to be desired. Hoke should be held accountable if the offense struggles this fall, but the truth is the turnaround he and Greg Mattison facilitated on defense in 2011 helped the offense deal with some growing pains in its transition. And Michigan's offense still ranked second in the league in scoring and third in yards.


Misplaced Gopher from Fargo, N.D., writes: Adam, last year Minnesota football fans were presented a laundry list of reasons why the Gophers couldn't win in Jerry Kill's first year: physically unfit personnel, academic nonperformance, poorly chosen recruits (blaming the previous regime), personnel mismatched to the incoming system, lack of opportunity to coach. This year, coach Kill is making no attempt to keep expectations down. He is praising the players effusively, bragging about the incoming recruits, and he says that this year he's getting to coach the players instead of spending all his time teaching them how to hustle, how to behave, and how to play. Coach Kill seems to be building up the expectations of the 2012 Gophers. Why do you think he's doing this, and how much better can Minnesotans expect our team to be this year?

Adam Rittenberg: Two questions from North Dakota in the same mailblog -- nice! I don't know if Kill is inflating the expectations too much, Gopher. I think at times last season he talked too much about the problems with the previous regime and the uphill climb he faced. While much of what he said is true, his statements sounded like excuses after a while. Kill clearly is more comfortable after going through a full offseason, but he also has addressed the odd roster makeup, which still includes small senior and junior classes (not counting the juco arrivals). But it's natural for coaches to feel more comfortable after they're established, and after they bring in more of their own players. What should Minnesota fans expect this season? Definitely more than three or four wins. It's not unreasonable at all to expect the Gophers to get back to a bowl.


Jonathan from Athens, Ala., writes: RE: SEC Teams venturing away from the southeast to play games, don't let the facts get in the way of your agenda but Alabama played at Penn State last year and has a game scheduled in a few years at Michigan State. You claim that it's the SEC that keeps home and home games from happening. Got any facts to back that up with? I bet Urban Meyer would LOVE to play a Nick Saban team again, right? Make sure you have the ambulance ready for when Saban puts him back in the hospital. Maybe, just maybe it's that you guys don't want Bama to choke the football down your throat like we did Penn State and Michigan State recently. You're pathetic.

Adam Rittenberg: Jonathan, I should have noted that Alabama has been the exception in the SEC as far as scheduling Big Ten teams. The Tide deserve credit for being willing to venture to both State College and East Lansing, in addition to facing Michigan at a neutral site. But on the whole, how many other SEC teams would dare play a game in Big Ten territory? Florida certainly wouldn't. Vanderbilt is playing at Northwestern this year, but Vandy, while improving, isn't viewed as a premier program. The Big Ten and SEC both get heat for nonconference schedules, and both leagues are to blame for the lack of non-league games against one another. But if SEC teams play squads in the ACC and Pac-12, why can't they play more against the Big Ten? It'd be nice if more SEC programs follow Alabama's lead, just as it would be nice if more Big Ten programs followed Michigan State's lead.


Chip from Savannah, Ga., writes: My question for you is regarding OSU and PSU, why is everyone expecting OSU to have a much better season than PSU. They're both putting in new systems in regards to offense, but I think PSU's defense is still better than OSU's which is going to be both's stronger unit. I know you have a proven commodity in Meyer, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that they have to transition as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Both defenses should be strong, Chip, and while Ohio State's will be improved with more experience, I agree that Penn State's appears to have the stronger unit because of its strength at linebacker and in the front seven. One big omission in your note is quarterback Braxton Miller. While Penn State is still looking for a clear-cut starting quarterback, Ohio State knows Miller is its future. While Miller is far from a finished product, he showed impressive skills as a true freshman in 2011 and looks like an excellent fit for Meyer's offense. Both teams need to develop more options in the passing game and Penn State has a better running back in Silas Redd, but the quarterback play separates the two in my mind. Both programs are going through transitions, but Ohio State players are a little more accustomed to it after what happened last year. That's not saying Penn State won't be fine, but the coaching change in State College has been more dramatic because of the unique circumstances.


Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, while you were out on vacation, Brian wrapped up the Postseason Top 25 players. I was wondering if you could explain your reasoning for why Still was placed ahead of Mercilus. For the record, I'm an MSU fan and have no horse in this race; I just thought Mercilus was more deserving given his absurd numbers, primarily in sacks, TFL, and fumbles forced. And for bonus points, what prompted your trip to Istanbul (as opposed to say, Hawaii), and what was your favorite part?

Adam Rittenberg: It was a tough call, Mochila, as both defenders had outstanding seasons. Brian and I actually differed on our Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year endorsements, as he picked Still and I picked Mercilus. As I pointed out then and as you point out in your note, Mercilus' numbers blow away the competition. That said, few positions on the football field are more significant than a dominant defensive tackle, and Still fit the description in 2011. You can't judge defensive tackles strictly by individual stats, as theirs rarely will stack up with those of the top defensive ends. The defensive tackles deal with more double teams, and their roles are more significant in run-stopping. Still was as good or better than another Penn State defensive tackle, Jared Odrick, in 2009. Odrick finished No. 2 in the countdown that year, and Still was deserving of his position in this year's rundown.