Big Ten: Braxton Miller

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
5:00
PM ET
Sorry for the lack of a mailbag last Wednesday, but I was busy catching up with folks at Ohio State. Never fear: the Monday mailbag is back.

D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?

Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.

So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.

If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.


Kelly from Wilmington, N.C., writes: Brian, I know you said in your article that you don't think "The Game" would ever be a prime-time game, but do you think Michigan will gauge this year's game vs. Penn State to consider using Penn State and Ohio State every other year for a night game? They went from "never" to yes with Notre Dame and are now using Penn State. Yes, they get a great spot every year on ABC, but could you imagine if they moved to it a night game? Is it possible that they have realized that at least one night game a year is great in so many ways, not just for Michigan, but the Big Ten as a whole?

Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.


Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Can any conclusions be drawn about the benefit of spring games based on some of the attendance numbers you guys have mentioned in your recaps? I'm not going to pull a Braxton Miller and brag about PSU's "domination" of spring game attendance in the B1G, but ... some schools can really use the spring game as a springboard for recruiting, while other schools ... under 10,000 at Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and more might only be hurting their own image? Weather wasn't much of a factor this weekend, so what is the reasoning for the rather paltry attendance numbers, or is the annual spring game at other schools not nearly the weekend long "festival" that the Blue-White game is in State College every year?

Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.

I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.


Dalton from Cincinnati writes: I've had some different debates with some of my friends on why Michigan hasn't been able to rebound and compete for a Big Ten championship since 2006. To clear things up, do you think it is because Michigan State is no longer "the little brother" in this rivalry, or because Ohio State has won all but two meetings against them since 2001? Or is it the fact MSU hasn't had as much coaching turnover, has had better coaching and better development of their recruits and has had more winning seasons? I think MSU becoming more constant under Mark Dantonio has led to this occurring than anything else. What is your take on this?

Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.

Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.

Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.
video
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
video
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The entire roster wasn't on display, leaving some uncertainty about what Ohio State will look like at full strength. But heading into the offseason, there were still some lessons to be learned by the Gray's 17-7 victory over the Scarlet on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

The secondary has improved

  • The offense was short-handed, starting with the absence of a certain two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year at quarterback and including short or nonexistent workloads for key receivers. But the defensive backs showed the kind of improvement Urban Meyer demanded since last season's unit finished No. 110 in the country against the pass. In holding Cardale Jones to a 14-for-31 performance through the air without a touchdown, even with top returning cornerback Doran Grant on the sideline, the Buckeyes' defensive backs will head into the summer feeling good about their progress. Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley are both solid options at cornerback, with the former making a statement early in the game with a nice breakup on a deep ball down the sideline. And once Grant and injured safety Vonn Bell are back in the mix to play Ohio State's more aggressive man coverage this fall, the statistics should look drastically better.
Braxton Miller is still the key
[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteCardale Jones is likely to enter the fall as the backup quarterback for Ohio State.

  • Jones made progress in several areas throughout the spring, and he's earned the right to head into training camp as the second-string quarterback. But Miller remains the most critical component in Ohio State's spread attack, and his absence was a major factor in what was largely a disappointing afternoon for the offense. Miller will be back from his shoulder surgery shortly and is cleared to resume throwing and working out in time for the offseason conditioning program. It is still obvious that the Buckeyes need him on the field if they're going to make a run at a championship this fall. He'll also need some better work from the offensive line than what the Buckeyes put on display in the exhibition, though not having guard Pat Elflein in pads and limiting tackle Taylor Decker's role didn't do the unit any favors Saturday.
Michael Thomas is still a spring star

  • By now it should come as no surprise, but redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas again led the Buckeyes in receptions in the spring game, turned heads with some eye-popping grabs and looked like a future star on the perimeter. That's a familiar story with Thomas, who has dominated the spotlight during spring camp three years running and capped off the latest one with six catches for 64 yards, including a diving reception for a first down and a one-handed snag along the sideline that highlighted his athleticism and ability to haul in even balls thrown off target. The Buckeyes haven't settled on a true pecking order at receiver yet, though Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith are sure bets to take two top spots. One more time, it appears Ohio State should make room for Thomas in the rotation leaving spring, but obviously he'll need to follow it up with more standout work when practice begins again this summer.

Spring game preview: Ohio State

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
9:00
AM ET
Ohio State has an action-packed afternoon planned for its spring showcase, including an undercard that features a lacrosse game in the Horseshoe and halftime entertainment that includes Ohio State players racing students. Here’s more of what to expect from the annual LiFE Sports Spring Game:

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET

Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBackup QB Cardale Jones development will be a big storyline to watch in Ohio State's spring game.
Admission: General admission tickets are $5 (originally priced $12 in advance; fans who already purchased tickets can get a refund for the difference from the place they bought the tickets beginning Monday, or donate the difference to the LiFE Sports program and Boys and Girls Club). Children under six years old and Ohio State students get in free.

TV: Big Ten Network (live coverage)

Weather forecast: Conditions should be just about perfect after a spring spent largely indoors for the Buckeyes. The high temperature is projected to be 72 degrees and the forecast calls for a zero percent chance of rain, setting the table for what should be a gorgeous afternoon at the Shoe.

What to watch for: The Buckeyes try to balance the teams as much as possible to present a competitive game for fans and a chance to evaluate the roster for coaches, and that should provide a few notable measuring sticks at critical positions heading into the offseason.

It’s no secret that pass defense was awful for Ohio State down the stretch as it dropped its final two games last season, and while Chris Ash has only had 14 practices as the new co-defensive coordinator in charge of the secondary, early reviews have been positive. But how will the defensive backs match up against a proven deep threat such as Devin Smith or a speed-burner such as Dontre Wilson on the perimeter?

For that matter, how will the passing attack look without Braxton Miller at the helm for the Buckeyes as he continues to recuperate from offseason shoulder surgery? The importance of replacing backup quarterback Kenny Guiton shouldn’t be overlooked for Ohio State, considering the number of times he was needed off the bench during his career, and Cardale Jones will be under the microscope in the spring showcase to see how far he’s come with his accuracy and as a decision-maker.

There is some uncertainty about the starting offensive line as the Buckeyes try to replace four starters up front, and there’s a heated battle going on between a handful of candidates trying to fill the void at running back left by Carlos Hyde. But the main focus for the Buckeyes will be on the skill players on the perimeter -- on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Meyer, no doubt, will be paying close attention to whatever happens when the ball is in the air.
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Think back to the most memorable catches over the last couple seasons at Ohio State.

Was it a clutch touchdown grab that tipped the scales in a close game down the stretch? Devin Smith probably caught it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Smith's consistency needs to match his big-play ability.
How about a bomb, something that covered at least 40 yards and provided an instant jolt of offense? Odds are Smith was the guy streaking down the field and celebrating in the end zone.

Maybe it was a jaw-dropping, head-turning display of aerial athleticism, probably resulting in points for the Buckeyes? No doubt, Smith is again popping into mind.

Perhaps no player short of Braxton Miller has done more than Smith to stock the highlight reel for the Buckeyes since the spread offense arrived and the passing game started its rapid evolution out of the Stone Age. And even if he never has another chance to reach up to snag another one-handed reception against tight coverage, Smith has already supplied enough memories to fill several hype videos or decorate the walls of the practice facility with photos of his scoring exploits.

But for all those unforgettable moments, there have also been a few games where it’s hard to even remember Smith was on the field at all. And rather than duplicate all the dizzying highs heading into his senior season, the emphasis now is instead on eliminating the lows.

“I look back at some of the plays I’ve made, I have made some plays that people will remember forever,” Smith said. “But inside me, I still feel like there’s more that I need to give.”

The Buckeyes are more than willing to take whatever else Smith has to offer, particularly with leading receiver Philly Brown no longer in the picture and coach Urban Meyer still stressing the importance of balancing his high-powered rushing attack with more contributions from the passing game.

Smith is the logical choice to lead that effort on the heels of a 44-catch, 660-yard, eight-touchdown season in 2013, another campaign that featured go-ahead scores, game-changing strikes from long distance and impressive catches while simultaneously fighting off gravity and cornerbacks. But what the Buckeyes need now is the kind of consistency and reliability Brown provided by making multiple receptions in every outing but two, something Smith struggled to offer late in the season a year ago while catching just 6 balls in the final five games.

“Obviously with some game plans, there are times when it’s going away from me, putting the ball in Philly’s hands or keeping it with Braxton and Carlos [Hyde], things like that,” Smith said. “But I think one thing that kind of hurt me a little bit was towards the end I was banged up a little bit and not making as many plays in practice, and that held me back from getting plays in a game.

“I’m just making sure I take care of my body every single day and make plays that I can, act like practice is a game. If I do that here and perfect that, I think it will carry over to the season.”

Part of that process during the spring involves challenging Smith as if he were in the middle of the season, putting him in different scenarios designed to take him out of his comfort zone and forcing him to overcome a few hurdles.

Notably, the Buckeyes have moved him all over the formation as part of the ongoing development of his game, having him spend one full day away from his starting "X" position while working at "Z," then lining him up at other times in the slot to continue keeping him on his toes and finding a way to tap into his potential more regularly.

“The biggest thing we’ve had to do is present adversity to him, moving positions and moving him around, creating those hard situations because he’s great when things are great,” receivers coach Zach Smith said. “When things are hard, that’s when he needs to shine. He’s been inconsistent in that.

“But so far, so good.”

That, of course, is as true for Smith’s career as a whole as it is his development this spring. But he isn’t done with either quite yet.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach James Franklin hasn't yet been on campus for three months, but he has already made some lofty statements. Among them: an eventual return to national prominence, selling out Beaver Stadium every week and dominating the region in recruiting.

There's no telling exactly how Franklin's first season at Penn State will go, but there is obviously some precedent here. Last week, we tried to give an idea of what to expect in Christian Hackenberg's sophomore season by taking a look at how past B1G freshmen of the year fared in Year 2. This week, we're looking at how other Big Ten East Division coaches performed during their first seasons:

Kevin Wilson, Indiana, 2011
First season with Indiana: 1-11
Season before Wilson's arrival: 5-7
Best season so far: Year 3 (2014 -- 5-7)

Synopsis: Wilson didn't inherit the greatest situation, as the Hoosiers' top quarterback had graduated after earning honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. As a result, Wilson was forced to play three quarterbacks during his first season, all of whom finished with between 80 and 160 passing attempts.

Since Wilson's first season, he has managed to improve the Indiana's offense every season. It was ranked No. 83 nationally in total offense in 2011, No. 34 in 2012 and then No. 9 last season. On the negative end, the defense has allowed more yards every season.

Randy Edsall, Maryland, 2011
First season with Maryland: 2-10
Record before Edsall's arrival: 9-4, beat East Carolina in Military Bowl
Best season so far: Year 3 (2014 -- 7-6, lost to Marshall in Military Bowl)

Synopsis: Ralph Friedgen's firing after the 2010 season came as a surprise, as he was named the ACC coach of the year. (Franklin was the offensive coordinator at the time and the head coach-in-waiting.) Edsall's first season was disastrous. After Maryland upset Miami (Fla.) in the season opener, the Terps lost its remaining 10 games against FBS opponents. Before the season, the Football Outsiders Almanac gave Maryland a 1 percent chance of finishing 3-9 or worse.

Several players, such as QB Danny O'Brien, transferred during that offseason -- and Edsall has tried to rebuild the program since. His record has improved every season since his forgettable first, and the Terps fared relatively well in 2013 despite an injury-ridden season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011
First season with Michigan: 11-2, beat Virginia Tech in Sugar Bowl
Record before Hoke's arrival: 7-6, lost to Mississippi State in Gator Bowl
Best season so far: Year 1

Synopsis: After Michigan finished with a winning record in just one of three seasons under Rich Rodriguez, Hoke came in and helped turn the Wolverines around immediately. Michigan's defense went from No. 110 in yards allowed under Rodriguez to No. 17 under Hoke, in large part because Hoke scrapped the 3-3-5. It was the first time the Wolverines won a BCS bowl since 2000, when Tom Brady won the Orange Bowl.

Michigan has won fewer games the last two seasons, finishing 7-5 in 2012 and 7-6 last season. The offense has statistically regressed every season, and the defense has ranged from great to just above average. Hoke finished Year 3 with the same record, 7-6, as Rodriguez did in this third season.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, 2007
First season with Michigan State: 7-6, lost to Boston College in Champs Sports Bowl
Record before Dantonio's arrival: 4-8
Best season so far: Year 7 (13-1, beat Stanford in Rose Bowl)

Synopsis: In Year 1 of the Dantonio era, the Spartans rebounded from three consecutive losing seasons to achieve an unexpected bowl berth. Only a dozen starters returned from 2006, so it wasn't as if Dantonio had the benefit of a stacked roster, either. His defensive mindset paid immediate dividends, as the Spartans finished ranked No. 32 in yards allowed that season -- an improvement of 56 spots from the previous season.

Dantonio has led the Spartans to unprecedented success. He has led them to seven straight bowl berths, the longest streak in school history. Before he arrived, Michigan State had just seven bowl wins. Dantonio's Spartans have won their last three.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State, 2012
First season with Ohio State: 12-0 (not postseason-eligible due to NCAA sanctions)
Record before Meyer's arrival: 6-7, lost to Florida in Gator Bowl
Best season so far: Year 1

Synopsis: A lot was working against the Buckeyes the season before Meyer landed in Columbus. There was the tattoo scandal and the accompanying suspensions, a new QB in freshman Braxton Miller and an offense that ranked No. 107 nationally in total yards. Meyer helped Ohio State rebound from all that in one short offseason. Miller became the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, the Buckeyes' offense improved to No. 47 nationally, and Meyer's team came away with six victories decided by a touchdown or less.

He won 24 consecutive games with the Buckeyes before losing back-to-back contests in the 2013 postseason, in both the Big Ten title game and the Orange Bowl, by a combined 15 points. He hasn't yet been named the B1G coach of the year, but it woud be difficult to argue that he's not one of the two best coaches in the conference.

Kyle Flood, Rutgers, 2012
First season with Rutgers: 9-4 (5-2 Big East), lost to Virginia Tech in Russell Athletic Bowl
Record before Flood's arrival: 9-4 (4-3 Big East), beat Iowa State in Pinstripe Bowl
Best season so far: Year 1

Synopsis: Expectations were high for the longtime Rutgers assistant, as one preview story said the Scarlet Knights could have a "championship-caliber" defense in 2012. Rutgers' defense lived up to expectations by ranking No. 10 nationally in yards allowed that season and, with a starting roster largely returning, the season was a success. But it could've been even better. Flood's team started 9-1 before dropping its final three games.

Flood's team seemed to take a step back last season, as it finished 6-7 after starting 4-1. Decommitments and off-the-field issues were a big concern, and questions about Flood's job security arose toward the end of the season. In a move in the right direction, Minnesota QB Philip Nelson recently transferred to Rutgers, however, and will be available for the 2015 season.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
5:00
PM ET
I'm currently driving around Michigan, getting a close-up look at the Wolverines and Spartans this spring. I still found a little time during my Mitten State adventure to answer a few of your emails in this shortened mailbag. Keep those questions coming, and I'll try to do a longer one on Wednesday.

Iowatvman from Cedar Rapids writes: With the vote to allow players to unionize, how does this affect Title IX at the universities? Now that they have to pay out for football, which pays for many other sports, will women's rowing, wrestling, men's and women's gynmastics, etc. go by the wayside?

Brian Bennett: It's important to note that the ruling by the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board applies only to Northwestern football players, and it specifically dealt with issues at a private university. Also, Kain Colter and CAPA have stressed that they didn't push for unionization in order to receive salaries. They have said they're looking for the right to bargain for their practice and living conditions and receive medical care protections, not to get paid.

Still, you'd have to think that eventually any college players' union would get around to asking for a bit more of the financial pie, and even some of the medical benefits the Northwestern effort seeks would cost money. There seems to be little reason why a non-revenue sport at Northwestern or another private school also couldn't petition for a union and use this ruling as a precedent, especially because those athletes also spend so much time working on their sports. And then what happens? It's clear that there are a whole lot more questions than answers right now on this union story, but it is fascinating.




Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Regarding your mention about Dan Wetzel's article revealing that Gene Smith received an $18K bonus for his victory (uh, I mean a wrestler's victory) in the NCAA wrestling championships, maybe you should rephrase your comment to read, "that tells you everything you need to know about OSU sports." In mentioning other examples of gross exploitation, Wetzel didn't name any other B1G school. Did Dave Joyner receive an extra bonus for having two national champions, as well as the team championship in wrestling? Are there other B1G schools whose AD gets similar bonuses? I would venture to say that there are probably bonus clauses in all of their contracts, as are also in coaching contracts. But I wonder if they are comparable to Smith's freebies that he gets for not doing one damn thing to earn it. Not to mention his obscene salary.

Brian Bennett: Glenn, I can assure you that these types of bonuses -- not just for championships but things like NCAA tournament berths and academic benchmarks -- are commonplace in athletic directors' contracts all across Division I. Smith is by no means alone when it comes to those bonuses, and as the CEO of one of the largest athletic departments in the country at Ohio State, his salary is commensurate with the demands and marketplace. I have absolutely no problem with Smith negotiating the very best deal he could get, just as any of us would do. But at a time when athletes are suing the NCAA over the use of their images for a video game, or when the cost-of-attendance stipend can't get passed, or when players are going so far as to unionize to protect their own rights, that bonus simply doesn't look good.




Kenny from Cincy writes: Almost baseball season, and your Cards are going down this year. I have a simple question, yes or no, because this seams to be the Big Ten's main question ... Is this Ohio State's year?

Brian Bennett: How dare you besmirch the birds on the bat. Vengeance will be swift. Anyway, I'm not quite sure what you mean by whether it's "their year" for the Buckeyes. I'm going to assume you mean a national championship, or at least a a College Football Playoff berth, because a Big Ten title isn't unexpected in Columbus (though it would actually be Urban Meyer's first). Ohio State has a lot of questions, which include four new starters on the offensive line, unproven backs and receivers and a defense that needs to make a major improvement without its two best players from 2013 (Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby). For me, those are too many questions to consider the Buckeyes a legitimate national title contender at this point. But as usual, they will have at least as much overall talent, if not more than everybody in the Big Ten. I trust in Meyer and his coaching staff. And having a great quarterback like Braxton Miller goes a long way. So I'm sure as heck not counting them out.




Arik from Chicago writes: I always find the back and forth on whether Maryland coming to the B1G is good for this side or that side, for this reason or that. Often the answer seems to come to this: The B1G gets a good market, Maryland gets a pile of money. I thought I'd share my thoughts as a double Terp (undergrad and grad school). Here's what won me over: the Big Ten Committee on Institutional Cooperation. As important as sports are to me, other than the money, the competition will probably stay about the same -- in the last decade, we've shown we're capable of beating or losing to just about any team at any time, no matter how good or bad a season either side is having. Now in academics, the B1G (with the CIC) has something unique that the ACC just can't offer. But the B1G wins, too -- bringing in a public ivy with huge research agreements with dozens of national and federal institutions (DoD, NOAA, NASA, FDA, NIST...) can't hurt.

Brian Bennett: Arik, you make some good points about the academic side of things here. Adding Maryland and Rutgers to the mix only adds to the league's brain power, and administrators from those schools are excited about the new research opportunities. Of course, football and demographics drove the train with this expansion move, or else the Big Ten would have been looking to raid the actual Ivy League, not the Atlantic Coast and American Athletic conferences.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
4:30
PM ET
Happy hoopin' (and spring footballin').

Twitter!

Inbox!

Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?

Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.


M.A. Reed from Hamilton, Ohio, writes: Really? Miller and one returning starter ranked No. 3, behind a O-line that graduated---everyone? The Ohio"'lean" is more than obvious, but this is ridiculous. Michigan seven? With 9 starters back who are NOT 18 anymore. I could ID several other points, but it should be obvious. Still not buying in? Really?

Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.


Kenny from Cincy writes: Adam, I have been sensing good vibes out of Penn State with James Franklin and a weak schedule next year. It's nice to see it turning around, but can we be real about it? They aren't going to beat Michigan State and had a 60-spot put on that "tough" defense last year by the Buckeyes. They are also going to inevitably lose a game they shouldn't have, as they have done the past several years, and we are looking at a middle-of-the-pack, three- or four-loss season. And that's best-case scenario. Lots of false hope and unrealistic expectations. Rinse and repeat for next season. Am I wrong?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.


Mike from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I have a question regarding two recent events in the B1G that tie together. Do you think the Illinois State Legislature foresaw the ruling in the Northwestern case and are trying to make a case to replace Northwestern? I remember reading that the former Northwestern president saying they might have to drop football if the players won the case. Could this be the way for the Illinois State legislature to replace the B1G's closest Chicago team with someone like Northern Illinois?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.


Bob from Houston writes: While I suspect my Boilermakers will struggle mightily again this year, I have to ask if you see a difference in player/team attitude and mental toughness this spring as opposed to last year.

Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.



SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.

Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The kitchen is still stocked with enough ingredients to make another delicious offensive meal, but the main dish probably won’t be beef again.

With four senior starters gone from the line and bullish running back Carlos Hyde headed to the NFL, Ohio State is going to have to make some changes to its high-scoring recipe after rewriting the record books thanks in large part to all the meat it had in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's offensive line will be revamped in 2014, with tackle Taylor Decker as the only returning starter.
And while that doesn’t mean Urban Meyer or coordinator Tom Herman will be abandoning the power rushing attack that has been the calling card of their version of the spread attack in favor of a more finesse approach, some of its finest ingredients are now on the perimeter, potentially giving the Buckeyes a new look when they’re done experimenting this spring.

“As bad as we want an offensive line like last year, it’s going to take a while to develop that,” Meyer said. “I think at some point because we recruited well and with our line coach [Ed Warinner], that will happen. But no, it’s going to be different.

“We’re going to have to lean on some perimeter ways of getting first downs and all that. Last year [it] was rushing for 300-plus yards per game. It’s because that offensive line was so good. We have other weapons, but it will be a little different taste to it than last year.”

Braxton Miller will still provide the most flavor heading into his senior year at quarterback, but there will be plenty of fresh faces around him as the Buckeyes transition from the veterans who helped pile up points over the last couple seasons to the younger talent Meyer has recruited since taking over the program.

The loss of the core group of linemen is certainly a blow, though Ohio State has prepared for it by working the replacements into games and getting them extra practice work last fall. Filling the void left by the workhorse Hyde might seem like a tall order as well, but the Buckeyes have as many as five candidates they have confidence in to carry the load on the ground in his absence. There’s also the matter of replacing leading receiver Philly Brown, a versatile athlete who supplemented his 63 receptions with a handful of rushing attempts in a hybrid role.

But if there aren’t experienced seniors ready to step up on the line, the Buckeyes at least have returning starter Taylor Decker around to bridge last season to the future at left tackle. Hyde’s production and consistency made him one of the nation’s best tailbacks and a potential first-round draft pick, but Ezekiel Elliott shined in his limited opportunities and senior Rod Smith has never had his physical tools questioned. Dontre Wilson is more than capable of taking over Brown’s role now that he has had a chance to grasp the responsibilities of the H-back position and improved his hands enough to be considered a full-time receiver.

Meyer has suggested that using Wilson and athletes like Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel on bubble screens or jet sweeps to get to the edge might be the best way to adapt while the offensive line develops, and he’s certainly been recruiting enough speed to perhaps more truly spread the field than the Buckeyes have done in his first two seasons. And as successful as they've been anyway, that different taste might not go down easily for opposing defenses.

“We’ll never leave our core values,” Herman said. “Spread the field horizontally and vertically, be in the shotgun, add the quarterback as part of our run game and have that dimension and to be a downhill, A-gap, tight-zone, vertical, power-run team with vertical play-action pass off it. What does that evolve to? I don’t know.

“But I think when people ask me maybe what I’m most proud of the first couple years here is we didn’t fit a square peg into a round hole. ... You've got to figure out what everybody can do, what they do well and try to mask the deficiencies while you’re improving them yet play to the strengths. Where that’s headed after six spring practices, I have no idea. But it will be different.”

The Buckeyes still have plenty of time to tinker, and the cupboards are far from bare.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg hasn't even completed two weeks of spring practice, so it's still anybody's guess how the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year will perform in 2014.

But, over the last 25 years, five other Big Ten quarterbacks have found themselves in similar positions. Like Hackenberg, they impressed fans with memorable rookie campaigns, were named the Big Ten freshman of the year and raised expectations over the offseason.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
MCT via Getty ImagesHow will Nittany Lions signal-caller Christian Hackenberg follow up his fantastic freshman season?
Hackenberg's sophomore season won't be in the books for quite some time. But here's a look at those other five QBs and how they fared in their sophomore seasons and in their careers:

Braxton Miller, Ohio State, won award in 2011

Sophomore stats (2012): 148-of-254 passing (58.3 percent); 2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs; 227 carries, 1,271 yards, 13 TDs

Ohio State record (2012): 12-0, no postseason due to sanctions (2011: 6-7, lost to Florida in Gator Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: It would've been difficult to ask Miller for a much better sophomore campaign. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, finished fifth in the Heisman voting and even bested Carlos Hyde in both rushing yards (1,271 to, 970) and yards per carry (5.6 ypc to 5.2 ypc). Miller was more renowned for his legs than his arm, but he was still the second-most efficient passer in the conference. He also came up big when his team needed; the Buckeyes won six games that were decided by a touchdown or less.

His career: He could've opted to leave early for the NFL this offseason but instead decided to stay one last season. He's becoming more well-rounded with each season, and he's once again one of the favorites to win the Heisman.

Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, won award in 2008

Sophomore stats (2009): 167-of-295 passing (56.6 percent); 2,094 yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs; 162 carries, 779 yards, 7 TDs

Ohio State record (2009): 11-2, beat Oregon in Rose Bowl (2008: 10-3, lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas)

Sophomore synopsis: With the top tailback (Chris Wells) and wideout (Brian Robiskie) from 2008 both gone, Pryor put the offense on his back and carried it to an improved record. Pryor led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and he was instrumental in the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl win. He threw for 266 yards, rushed for a game-high 72 yards and was named the MVP. Statistically, his sophomore campaign wasn't his best season -- but he had a lot to overcome.

His career: He led the Buckeyes to three straight BCS bowl berths, but his legacy was marred by an early exit. He was suspended for the first five games of his senior season -- due to Tattoo-Gate -- so he instead opted for the NFL's supplemental draft in 2011. The Oakland Raiders took him in exchange for a third-round pick, although reports this week have said Pryor is now seeking to cut ties with the Raiders because he hopes to be a starter somewhere.

Brooks Bollinger, Wisconsin, won award in 1999

Sophomore stats (2000): 110-of-209 passing (52.6 percent); 1,479 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs; 157 carries, 459 yards, 6 TDs

Wisconsin record (2000): 9-4, beat UCLA in Sun Bowl (1999: 10-2, beat Stanford in Rose Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: The Badgers needed to fill the big shoes of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, so they leaned a little more on the passing game in 2000. But, make no mistake about it, this was a run-first team that lived and died on the ground while relying heavily on Michael Bennett. Still, Bollinger played a big role as an effective dual-threat quarterback -- and this Wisconsin team came close to equaling success from the year before. Three of the Badgers' four losses were decided by six points or less, and two of those losses came in overtime.

His career: Bollinger never put up big passing numbers -- he never ranked higher than third in a given Big Ten stat category -- but he was consistent and did what was asked of him. The Big Ten Network even chose him as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the conference from 2000 to 2010. He played five seasons in the NFL and was the Pittsburgh Panthers' QB coach for two seasons.

Antwaan Randle El, Indiana, won award in 1998

Sophomore stats (1999): 150-of-279 passing (53.8 percent); 2,277 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs; 224 carries, 788 yards, 13 TDs

Indiana record (1999): 4-7 (1998: 4-7)

Sophomore synopsis: Randle El's sophomore season was his best, by passing numbers, in his four years as a starter. He accounted for 69 percent of the entire offense that season and led the Big Ten with 30 combined touchdowns. The main reason Randle El couldn't lead Indiana to more wins? The defense allowed at least 30 points in nine of 11 contests. The highlight of the Randle El's season came against Illinois in October, when he overcame a 21-point deficit late in the third quarter to force overtime. Neil Rackers nailed a field goal to open up overtime for Illinois, but Randle El tossed a 25-yard TD pass on the very next play to seal the 34-31 win.

His career: The Hoosiers never won more than five games during his career, but he was clearly the team's best player. (And he was probably the most athletic person on campus -- he also played two years of basketball and one year of baseball.) He had a nine-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.

Eric Hunter, Purdue, won award in 1989

Sophomore stats (1990): 200-of-366 passing (54.6 percent); 2,355 passing yards, 12 TDs, 14 INTs; 97 carries, 0 yards, 7 TDs

Purdue record (1990): 2-9 (1989: 3-8)

Sophomore synopsis: Hunter was looked upon as a young Randall Cunningham, but his career never lived up to those freshman expectations. He threw 11 TDs on 178 attempts as a freshman and just 12 TDs on 366 attempts as a sophomore. The main problem was an inexperienced offensive line, and it only got worse as the season wore on. In the last five games, Hunter had 11 picks.

His career: Those sophomore struggles led to the firing of Purdue's coach, which meant a new coach and a new system for Hunter. The line continued to struggle, Hunter never got back on track, and he saw less time on the field each season thereafter. He earned a reputation for his inability to read defenses, and the Boilermakers never won more than four games a season during his career.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
PM ET
Eyes closed, head first, can't lose.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:00
PM ET
Hope you all have caught your breath after a thrilling weekend of basketball action. Three Big Ten teams are still dancing, and my home state is about to go up in flames.

But enough about hoops. It's always football time around here, and this is a time when I answer your burning Big Ten questions.

3-2-1, shoot:

Adam from Houston, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, two questions: 1) What are the "must-do's" for Braxton Miller to hoist the Heisman Trophy this year? I think in some fashion, watching tape on the former OSU Heisman winner Troy Smith can help. Smith was a much better passer than Miller, but was a threat running when he had to. I think he also has to show up mentally for big games. It was obvious even through the TV against Northwestern and Michigan State (read: away from home) he was rattled. Does growth as a "field general" increase his chances at all, or will it only come down to performance? 2) What is your preseason Heisman list?

Brian Bennett: Heisman talk in late March. I love it!

This is going to sound overly simplistic, but more than anything, Miller needs numbers and wins to get into serious Heisman contention. In the past two seasons, he has thrown for just more than 2,000 yards, with a 1,000-yard rushing season in each. He had 28 total touchdowns in 2012, 36 last season. Those are good, but not eye-popping, stats. Consider that last year's winner, Jameis Winston, threw for more than 4,000 yards and had 44 total touchdowns. Given the way offenses are heading, big-numbers guys such as Winston and Johnny Manziel are going to stand out.

To do that, Miller needs to continue to make strides as a passer, and his receiving corps -- especially with favorite target Philly Brown gone -- needs to step up and help him out. He also needs to stay healthy and upright behind a rebuilt offensive line.

And, of course, spotlight victories are tremendously important. Winston played for the national champs. Manziel beat Alabama. Miller was in the discussion the past two years because Ohio State won 24 consecutive games. For the first time this year, he'll have some tough early tests against Virginia Tech, Navy and Cincinnati. Big performances and wins in those games could give Miller a head of steam.

Finally, my preseason list would naturally include Winston -- even though it's virtually impossible to win the Heisman twice -- along with Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baylor's Bryce Petty, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Miller. Winston and Manziel came out of virtually nowhere to win, however, so next year's Heisman could go to somebody we're not even discussing right now.


Rich from Des Moines writes: Brian, I'm sure whenever you do a post like the coaches tournament, you get crushed by people for leaving out their favorite coach/player/whatever. That's not my intention. Rather, I just want to ask why a few coaches that seem obvious for inclusion to me were not only left out of the bracket but not even mentioned in the closing paragraph as notable but not quite worthy of making the cut: 1. Biggie Munn, MSU: I understand he only coached one season in the Big Ten. But Tom Osborne coached zero seasons in the Big Ten; 2. Lloyd Carr, Michigan: While I am a committed UM hater, not mentioning him seems like a pretty big omission; 3. John Cooper: I know he is ridiculed in many quarters. I ridicule him for failing to understand the importance of the Michigan game, calling it just another game. But the guy won a lot.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the (very-long-and-since-edited question), Rich. Going through this exercise proved one thing: there is a tremendous and rich history of outstanding coaches in the Big Ten. I know going in that we couldn't make everyone happy. We like to keep these types of fields short so they don't overwhelm the blog, but I probably could have expanded it to a 64-team field. As it was, we went to a 12-team tournament instead of the eight-entry bracket we used for the players' and championship teams' tournamaent.

To address your specific questions, longevity made a difference in our choices. So while Munn did great things at Michigan State, he only coached there for seven seasons, including one in the Big Ten. We also wanted to diversify our field as much as possible, so while Carr also accomplished a whole lot, Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost seemed like better choices for Michigan. Cooper has some outstanding seasons, particularly 1993, 1996 and 1998, but he's not exactly beloved by Ohio State fans and we already had Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel. You can't please everybody. Just look at some of the controversial seeding in the men's basketball tournament.


Franklin from Norman, Okla., writes: What's with all the negative Michigan reporting these days? It seems like you guys are getting a kick out of it. It is quite clear that Adam does not like Michigan but I thought you were different. You guys are acting like Michigan is about to get hit with Penn State sanctions. Also, while you guys are all high on Michigan State and Ohio State (rightfully so), the upcoming season Michigan has will shock both of you. You are underestimating the impact coach [Doug] Nussmeier will have and the reorganizing that Brady Hoke did.

Brian Bennett: What you call "negative reporting," Franklin, I just call reporting. When a player as well known as Taylor Lewan gets charged with assault for an incident after the Ohio State game, that's news. When a starting offensive lineman gets suspended for the spring and the opener, that's news. No matter how much you love the Maize and Blue, I can't imagine you feel good about how the Brendan Gibbons saga has unfolded. I promise you that Adam and I derive no pleasure from reporting about off-the-field incidents and in fact would much, much rather just stick to writing about games and more pleasant stories. But stuff happens, and there's no way to deny that it hasn't been a great few months for the Wolverines this offseason. The best way to get past all that is to win, and the team certainly has the talent to do so, though many questions remain at several positions. I'm heading up to Ann Arbor this weekend and am eager to see how things are going this spring.


Jeff from between Omaha and Lincoln writes: Some of the coaches would like to be able to make scholarship offers earlier to help eliminate the flipping toward the end. This makes perfect sense to me. Teams need to make plans and have backup plans in place. However, doesn't this also work in reverse? A three-star athlete might want to go to a top-level program, but can't receive that offer because a commitment from a four- or five-star kid who said he wanted to go to that school. Isn't there a degree of discrimination happening here? If an athlete makes a commitment, he should be held to it. If he's not ready, the school can move on. The only exception should be if a coaching change is made. I'd like to see a few athlete-based lawsuits pop up against the rule-makers and see what happens.

Brian Bennett: Discrimination isn't really the word, but there are some complicating factors with coaches being allowed to offer earlier and an early signing period. Some players simply develop later while guys who are stars as juniors stagnate, especially once they get a big-time offer. Head coaches, assistants and roster plans change all the time. If big changes are made to the recruiting calender, I'd like to see some protections and restrictions in place. Limit the number of kids who could sign early to, say, no more than half the class. Allow anyone who signed early to get out of his letter if the head coach leaves afterward. These are some of the issues that need to be debated, in my opinion.


Drew from Detroit writes: Two quick questions... which B1G schools would you say have the best and worst football/basketball combo? Also, what's the difference between a "mailbag" and a "mailblog?"

Brian Bennett: Michigan State gets the nod from me for best combo, especially after just winning the Rose Bowl and for all its basketball success under Tom Izzo. But Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin are not far behind at all. As for the worst combo, right now it has to be Purdue, which finished last in the Big Ten in both sports. Historically, it's probably Northwestern, which is dragged down by a basketball program that still has never made the tournament.

As for the 'bag/'blog thing, I've always called it a mailbag, while Adam prefers mailblog, for whatever reason. That's not a piece of wordplay I particularly enjoy, but I've been known to make many groan-inducing puns. So to each his own.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Stan Drayton isn’t picky about how the job gets done.

The Ohio State running backs coach doesn’t need his next starter to have all the same physical qualities Carlos Hyde brought to the backfield. Drayton doesn’t even care if he needs more than one guy to fill the void Hyde left behind after his final season with the Buckeyes, and he’s not in a hurry to settle on a depth chart or figure out how to distribute carries.

In terms of fitting some sort of ideal mold for a tailback, Drayton has no preference as he sorts through a handful of options with different sizes and strengths. As for the details of how to match Hyde’s wildly productive, staggeringly efficient work on the ground, it doesn’t appear to make any difference to Drayton whether it takes one guy or five, as long as the results are the same.

[+] EnlargeBri'onte Dunn
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBri'onte Dunn, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, redshirted last season and is squarely in the mix for playing time.
“He has to be replaced,” Drayton said. “This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up. I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up.

“Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t a one-man show on the ground last year, and no matter what happens at running back this spring, they still won’t be in the fall with Braxton Miller and his talented legs returning at quarterback.

But Hyde was far and away the main focus at tailback last season, accounting for more rushing attempts than the rest of Ohio State’s stable of running backs combined despite missing three games to suspension. And now that he’s gone, those 208 carries he had as a senior will have to go somewhere, and the race is already heated as the new candidates scramble to claim them.

Rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott appears to be first in line after shining in a limited role a season ago, averaging 8.1 yards per carry while showing off his explosive speed and the ability to absorb or inflict punishment with his 225-pound frame.

Rising senior Rod Smith isn’t far behind and is doing everything he can to finally turn his natural talent into production before it’s too late. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a somewhat unexpected redshirt season during his second year at Ohio State and is impressing with his improved grasp of the offense. Warren Ball and early enrollee Curtis Samuel both are squarely in the battle for playing time as well, with the latter turning heads during offseason workouts and potentially becoming an option to play a hybrid role as a rusher and receiver when he gets completely healthy.

So even if the Buckeyes can’t settle on just one guy to fill Hyde’s shoes, they’re clearly not short of options.

“It’s real competitive, and coach Drayton really has us going,” Dunn said. “Everybody wants to play for Ohio State, so we’ll go as hard as we can.

“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, and by his example last year, it just taught us all a lot. ... Everybody is just going hard and trying to go for the spot. Our mindset is to be the best back in the country.”

Hyde made his case last season, finishing with 1,521 yards, 15 touchdowns and a resume that might make him the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

But Drayton doesn’t necessarily need one candidate to emerge as the best individual rusher in the country to get what he’s looking for this spring. The only thing that really matters to him is making sure Ohio State has the best backfield, any way he can get it.

“I’m always going to operate under the notion I need at least three [guys],” Drayton said. “I need at least three, and there’s five of them.

“All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive, they all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style, different strengths and weaknesses and they can all help this football team. ... I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”

Drayton might not be picky about how the production comes. But there’s no flexibility about making sure the Buckeyes get it one way or another.

SPONSORED HEADLINES