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Thursday, December 27, 2012
Big Ten Thursday mailbag

By Brian Bennett

Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas? If not, I'm here to give you answers to your most pressing Big Ten questions.

David from Chicago writes: Year in and year out, I hear about how the Big Ten does not do well in bowls. Can you tell me in the games the Big Ten teams lost how many times they were NOT favored to win the game? I am sure it is nearly every time. Look at the bowl matchups this year. I think the Big Ten is the better ranked team in only one bowl game. Look at the SEC. They are favored and the better ranked team in nearly every bowl game they play in. Their bowl tie-ins are set up for them to win. Louisville vs Florida? Come on, that's going to be a blow out. But the Big Ten gets Wisconsin vs Stanford. That seems fair. (Sarcasm). Our measure of success should not be wins or losses it should be beating the Vegas lines. Until the Big Ten gets better and more fair match ups our National perception will not change.

Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that the Big Ten plays an extremely challenging bowl slate every year, and in many ways it's too challenging -- i.e., playing the Big 12 in Texas, the SEC in Florida. Jim Delany wants the league to play the best competition it can, and that's admirable. I don't get your point about the BCS -- there's nothing really "unfair" about that, since the rules are the rules and Wisconsin happened to win the Big Ten with an 8-5 record. The Badgers were good enough to compete against their previous two Rose Bowl opponents down to the wire but just couldn't make one more play. The Big Ten also won its last three BCS at-large games: Michigan over Virginia Tech in last year's Sugar Bowl, Ohio State over Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar (later vacated), Iowa over Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange. I didn't hear any complaining about those matchups.

The league simply needs to do a better job in the regular season and in bowls, and then it won't be such an underdog in so many games. This year's lineup is also hurt by the absence of Ohio State and Penn State, two of the conference's top five teams. That is forcing everyone to play up a slot, and the bottom rung of the bowl lineup in particular has some tough matchups. We should see some reshuffling of the bowl lineup when the new contracts are worked out for 2014. Ultimately, though, the Big Ten needs to beat some of these teams if it wants to be considered among the best.

George G. from Palmyra, Va., writes: If the Buckeyes claim to be an elite team and continually recruit great high school players, why do they schedule weak teams outside the BIG? They seem to only schedule one decent FBS team and the rest are paid to come to Columbus to be crushed in the name of collecting a payment.

Brian Bennett: Sorry, can't agree with you there. Ohio State's 2012 and 2013 nonconference schedules are weak, but the Buckeyes didn't know Cal would backslide as a program when they scheduled that game. Ohio State has played many very good nonconference games over the years, with Texas, USC and Miami being recent examples, and is beefing up future nonconference slates with games against the likes of Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, TCU, Texas and Oregon. Most teams only play one tough game out of their league. In 2014, Ohio State plays Navy, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. In 2017, it has Oklahoma and North Carolina. Nothing wrong with that.

Brian W. from McHenry, Ill., writes: In looking at the remaining AAU-member schools, I think the most likely Big Ten targets for the final two spots (assuming they go to 16) are Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Colorado, or Vanderbilt. All of them would bring a new market (Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, and Nashville). Vanderbilt and Colorado would have built-in rivalries from members currently in the conference (Colorado with Nebraska and Vandy with Northwestern). Any thoughts on the likelihood of additional expansion and the possibilities of any of these 4 being potential targets?

Brian Bennett: You can scratch off Vanderbilt, because I don't see any team leaving the SEC. The money is just as good there as it is in the Big Ten, so there's no reason for an SEC team to bolt. Nearly the same can be said for Colorado and the Pac-12. When looking for expansion candidates, you really have to narrow your focus to ACC teams and other potential free agents. If the ACC can somehow stick together, then the expansion circus may stop for awhile. If not, the feeding frenzy is on. North Carolina and Georgia Tech make perfect sense for the Big Ten, as well as Virginia and possibly Duke.

Brian from Macomb, Mich., writes: In four out of the five grade reports, the offense's score has matched with the overall grade. Does this mean the era of defense winning championships/gotta play well in all 3 phases etc... is outdated?

Brian Bennett: That's more the way it shook out early on, and not every team will line up like that. See Minnesota, for instance. But there is something to be said about the correlation between offense and winning. Look at the top four scoring teams in the Big Ten: Ohio State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The first three went a combined 31-6, while Wisconsin is in the Rose Bowl. Similar correlations can be made for the top scoring teams nationally; even Alabama, whom we think of as a defense-first team, was No. 15 in the FBS in points scored this year. The game is changing, and you have to be able to put up a lot of points to win on a weekly basis. The concern for the Big Ten is if it is developing enough top-flight skill position players.

Dave R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I suppose I can see why the Buckeyes in the aughts wouldn't be considered a dynasty based on the definition ESPN is using. But your question whether any B1G team can make itself a dynasty again would still have to start with the Buckeyes. No need to retread the statistics for why Urban Meyer has done with the team this year and what he's done at Bowling Green, Utah, and, of course Florida. So that's the obvious answer. What are some other potentials? Bill O'Brien at Penn State did some great things in a really tough year -- could Penn State be a potential? That Team Up North has had some good recruiting, could they turn into a dynasty? What is your take?

Brian Bennett: Yeah, one national title does not count as a dynasty, though Ohio State in the 2000s was certainly a Big Ten dynasty. I agree with you that the Buckeyes have the best chance of getting it done in the future from this league. They have all the resources you need, and Meyer's track record speaks for itself. A 12-0 record in Year 1 is a pretty good start, and Meyer should bring in even more talent. Michigan also has a chance, but Brady Hoke still has some work to do to get that program back to truly elite status, as we saw this year in the Wolverines' games against the best teams on their schedule. I don't think you can put Penn State into the discussion simply because of the NCAA sanctions; it will be a few years before the Nittany Lions will even return to full strength roster-wise, and who knows what will happen that far down the road. Another factor that will make building a dynasty difficult for any school will be the four-team playoff. Winning two very playoff games multiple years in a row will take some amazing work.

Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Brian, how on Earth are you coming up with the overall grades for the season report cards? No matter how I change up the formula, a team with a grade of 'A' for defense shouldn't end up with a D+ overall grade. Your math seems off here by a full letter grade. I agree MSU was disappointing, but the performance doesn't merit a worse grade than an Indiana team with two fewer wins.

Brian Bennett: The overall grade takes not just offense, defense and special teams into account but how the team performed all season long in every area. I'm also grading with expectations and talent in mind, so you could say it's on a curve. However you want to slice it, Michigan State vastly underperformed from an expectation and talent level, especially with such a great defense. The Spartans continually fumbled away winnable games and were awful at home. That results in a worse grade for the season than Indiana, which met or even exceeded modest expectations and showed progress from the previous season.

Mike from St. Louis writes: Love the blog. I have to say, I would have wanted you as my high school teacher. You give the Hawkeye offense a "D"? What did the Hawks have to do to earn the "F" they so richly deserved? My Hawkeyes finished 114 out of 120 teams in total offense. Our starting QB finished 14th in TD's ... in the Big Ten conference! Seriously, what did Greg Davis do to earn another year as OC in Iowa City?

Brian Bennett: I'd be the cool high school teacher, with the patches on my sports coat and the hippest after-school club gatherings. Anyway, Iowa was atrocious in the passing game much of the year and earned an F in that area alone. I'll give you that. What, for me, allowed Iowa to avoid a failing grade was its running game, which was actually pretty good before Mark Weisman and two offensive line starters got hurt. Also, the baseline for an 'F' grade on offense was Illinois, which made Iowa look like a juggernaut in comparison.