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Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

By Brian Bennett

We've got a whole bunch of spring wrap up stuff coming on Friday. So to make room, my normal Thursday mailbag is running a day earlier, while Adam will have his Friday mailbag on Thursday. Set your calendars accordingly.

Now let's get to some rare hump day emails:

Adam from Gilbert, Ariz., writes: (Brian, I'm not totally convinced the East is all that much better than the West. Ohio State vs Wisconsin. Michigan vs Nebraska. Penn State vs Northwestern. Michigan State vs Iowa. Rutgers vs Purdue. Maryland vs Minnesota. Indiana vs Illinois. Those would be my matchups from 1-to-7, and I would have the West winning four of them on a neutral field. I think a lot of the games would be very close...what do you think?

Brian Bennett: That's an interesting way of looking at it. I think it all comes down to whether you think Northwestern has staying power and if Iowa can get back on its feet. If so, the West has a chance to be as good as the East. But if those things don't happen, and Michigan State remains highly competitive -- along with Penn State bouncing back from sanctions -- then I still think the balance of power tips toward the East. And remember: the competitive balance issue doesn't really involve the bottom- to mid-tier teams as much as it does those at the top.


Dave from Omaha, Neb., writes: Am I missing something as to why Penn State keeps being called a power house? I guess I wouldn't put them in the top 5 in the league... Just wondering as why they are even considered a factor in the unbalanced equation of divisions, like at all. Three B1G championships in 20 years? I just don't get it!

Brian Bennett: While Penn State might not have reached the heights many expected when it originally joined the Big Ten, it's hard to deny the tradition and history the Nittany Lions bring. They are a true "brand-name" program with all the resources, including a 100,000-seat stadium. You could even say Penn State underachieved in Joe Paterno's final years as coach, and that Bill O'Brien could awaken a sleeping giant. Of course, it all depends on how the program weathers the harsh NCAA sanctions. If the Lions take a step back because of depth problems, they might not factor into the competitive balance argument. But I suspect Penn State will not be down for long, because football is just too important there.


Hazmatt from St. Louis writes: As a Spartan fan, should I be happy about the perceived "parity-based" scheduling (and even more so, should Wildcats fans from the West)? I realize we're in the tougher division, but if UMich, OSU, and PSU are playing more games against Wisc., Neb., and Iowa, that could act as an equalizer. It certainly still won't be easy, but it seems to make the CCG more attainable.

Brian Bennett: It remains to be seen how exactly the crossover schedules will work out, but I found it very interesting that Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis fought for, and apparently won, the right to play Northwestern and Minnesota a lot and get exposure in Chicago and Minneapolis. (It was the least the Big Ten could do for the Spartans after denying them a spot in the West). If so, that could help Michigan State, although with three crossover games, it could still play Nebraska or Wisconsin, too. Having Ohio State and Michigan potentially play more difficult crossover games would provide some small equalization, but ultimately you're going to have to do well in division play to get to the championship game.


Jeff from East Lansing writes: I hear reference to MSU having a nationally elite defense all the time. Do you feel that this is actually the case or is it more of a result of the schedule? Much like a schedule can play a major role in a final record, it can also effect stats. The B10 was a very poor passing conference and MSU loves to blitz. Loading the box works great on running teams. The B10 rankings in passing was horrible: OSU 105th, Iowa 102nd, Mich 97th, Wisconsin 115 th, Neb 90th, NU 110 th, Minn 109th. The only decent passing B10 team was Indiana and they were 17th and put up 27 on MSU. No other team that they faced were in the top 50 in passing. So my question is with teams like OSU, Mich, Neb, etc all becoming more balanced and improving in the passing game, can MSU defense keep up with a high ranking defense or will the change in offenses that they face and a balanced attack create problems?

Brian Bennett: I don't think you can say Michigan State's defensive success is based in large part on the schedule. Pat Narduzzi's crew has been consistently excellent for a couple of years now. Besides, if that were the case, don't we have to re-evaluate all those venerated SEC defenses, since that league isn't exactly loaded with high-caliber passing teams? When you play in the Big Ten, you have to be ready for ground-and-pound teams like Wisconsin and Iowa, spreads like Ohio State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana and pro-styles like Penn State and (now) Michigan. Even if the league passing attacks haven't been great lately, that's a lot for a defensive coordinator to deal with. And I'll add this: Any team with a really good passing game that can put athletes in space is going to stress most defenses, even elite ones.


A.J. from Madison writes: I'm very curious about how strength of schedule will be looked at for the College Football Playoff selection, and I think this will ultimately determine whether 9 games will be good for the Big Ten or not. If the schedule is just lazily looked at as non-conference strength and conference strength, or rather, just the prestige of the conference, then obviously the B1G loses with respect to the playoff by adding a 9th game. However, if each game is looked at individually, then I think it could be a good thing. For example, look at Nebraska's schedule last year. If it's just lazily looked at as "the Big Ten is weak", it's not the same as examining it closely (Legends division plus OSU, Wisc, PSU). I hope that when the selection committee examines SoS, they do it carefully with a look at the schedule as a whole.

Brian Bennett: Much remains to be determined with the selection committee and their criteria. But in every step along the way, conference leaders have said strength of schedule should be a priority. The men's basketball tournament selection committee might be a good example here. That committee has consistently rewarded teams that have played strong schedules, especially in the nonconference games that teams can control. That's why it's smart for Big Ten teams to upgrade their out-of-league schedules in preparation for the playoff. The way most people judge a conference's strength is how its teams fare in nonconference games. Big Ten teams need to not only play strong teams in the nonconference, they need to win their fair share of those games.


Kevin from Augusta, Ga., writes: Why doesn't College Football expand to 13 or 14 regular season games? It solves most of your scheduling issues. We can still schedule marquee non-conference matchups, which I feel like will go away a little bit with the Big Ten going to 9 conference games. If we go to 14 games, then the B1G could go to 10 conference games. We get more college football, which everybody wants. School's make more money as they can schedule more home games and we're preparing these kids for the NFL grind. There might be a few more injuries, but that's not a good reason to not to play more football in my mind. If we start the season a week or two early, then there should be no issues with college finals. I feel like anyway you break it down, it's win-win.

Brian Bennett: Adding more games to the schedule is a tough sell, given all the information that has come out about concussions and their long-term effects. College presidents are also pretty strongly against lengthening the season much more. Of course, those principals could go out the window in a hurry if schools determine the only way to keep supporting their athletic departments is to add more football games. The revenue from the College Football Playoff should stem that tide for at least a while. I could see a day when there are 13 regular season games; after all, we went from 11 to 12 not long ago. But a 13-game schedule, plus a championship game and possibly two playoff games, would mean that some teams would play 16 times in that scenario. That seems like an awful lot for college athletes.


This Guy from Los Angeles writes: I just wanted to commend you on the appropriate use of the term "gantlet" in your article 'Winners and losers in Big Ten realignment.' I often see people opt for the vernacular "gauntlet," even though that refers to a glove worn with medieval armor. Well, that's enough nerding out of me.

Brian Bennett: Looks like someone has thrown down the grammar gauntlet.