Big Ten: Devin Gardner

Planning for success: Michigan

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
9:00
AM ET
There is only one team in the country that has racked up a worse turnover margin than Michigan through the first three weeks of the 2014 season.

The Wolverines have lost the ball eight times so far this season in a wide variety of ways. Sophomore cornerback Jourdan Lewis' interception on the second drive of last weekend’s 34-10 win over Miami (Ohio) was the team’s first and only takeaway at this point. The resulting minus-7 margin is one away from matching Louisiana-Lafayette at the bottom of the national rankings.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Tony Ding/Associated PressDevin Gardner and the Michigan offense has eight turnovers in the first three games.
“Obviously that’s been a point of emphasis,” first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said Monday. “It will continue to be a point of emphasis. We’re not going to play winning football if we continue on this pace. Our guys understand that we’ve got to get that corrected.”

Nussmeier’s offense will need to take better care of the ball this weekend if the Wolverines plan to survive a visit from Pac-12 opponent Utah. The Utes and their third-ranked scoring offense (57.5 points per game) have the firepower to cash in on their opponents’ mistakes.

Michigan’s blunders have come in bunches during the past two weeks. Senior quarterback Devin Gardner accounted for three (two interceptions and a fumble) on the first four drives of the second half in a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish led by three touchdowns when that flurry began, but Gardner’s issues eliminated any chance of a comeback attempt in South Bend. He added another interception on the final play of the game.

Opposing defenses picked off Gardner’s passes 11 times last season. All but one of those came in the first six games of the season, which led Michigan to believe those bad decisions were a thing of the past. Head coach Brady Hoke has been steadfast in his stance that Gardner will remain the team’s starting quarterback.

The three turnovers that came in a five-minute span against Miami (Ohio) can’t be blamed on Gardner. His one interception in that stretch was tipped at the line of scrimmage. The pick was sandwiched by two fumbles -- one from wide receiver Amara Darboh and the other on a botched kickoff return -- that let the clearly overmatched last-place MAC team hang with Michigan throughout the first half. Against better competition, the Wolverines will likely pay a bigger price for their miscues.

“You can’t have turnovers,” sophomore tight end Jake Butt said following Saturday’s victory. “That’s something we’ve talked about time and time and time again. Once we took care of the ball, we moved the ball. We just shoot ourselves in the foot when we turn it over.”

Everyone in the Michigan locker room recognizes the dangerous pattern, but Hoke said there isn’t one clear source of the problem or an easy solution.

“Coincidence? I don’t know,” he said when asked why the turnovers were coming in spurts. “Are we concerned about it? Yeah. We need to hold on to the ball and we need to get more turnovers on defense.”

Creating turnovers is an important and somewhat overlooked piece to the plan for a more successful turnover margin this weekend. Hoke said his team missed two opportunities to take the ball away from the RedHawks last weekend.

Despite its success in other departments this season, the Wolverines defense is tied for dead last nationally in total takeaways. The absence of starting cornerback Raymon Taylor and safety Jarrod Wilson, both with undisclosed injuries, has put more pressure on an inexperienced rotation of replacements to make big plays in the secondary.

The good news for Michigan this weekend is that the Utes are equally void of playmakers in the defensive backfield. Kyle Whittingham’s defense, which has no problem getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, has intercepted only one pass in its last nine games. Last year’s team finished with only three picks, which tied four other programs for the lowest total in FBS. If Gardner and the Wolverines are going to put their turnover troubles behind them, this weekend would be a great time to start.

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams: Week 3

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
4:30
PM ET
I demand a redraft.

We’re hosting our league on the ESPN College Football Challenge, and The Trombone Shorties currently rank No. 3 overall – nationally – in points scored. It hasn’t been close yet, but hopefully that’s about to change. Your Week 2 results:

The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 160
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 119
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 91
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 81
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 70

And your overall standings so far:

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg): 333
Massive Attack (Ward): 227
Legendary Leaders (Bennett): 206
Coal Crackers (Moyer): 195
Sherman Tanks (Sherman): 177

The Shorties have a big lead, but a lot can change in this league. We only have one bench spot, so bye weeks can be killer. The waiver wire is especially important, so here’s a look at our moves this week:

Sherman adds Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner and drops Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian

Moyer adds Penn State RB Bill Belton and drops Michigan State kickers

Bennett adds Illinois WR Martize Barr and drops Michigan RB Derrick Green

Rittenberg adds Purdue QB Danny Etling and drops Wisconsin RB Corey Clements

Sherman adds Michigan RB Derrick Green and drops Maryland WR Deon Long

Moyer adds Michigan kickers and drops Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Bennett adds Michigan defense and drops Rutgers defense

Rittenberg adds Iowa defense and drops Minnesota defense

Moyer takes Penn State defense and drops Michigan State defense

Waiver-wire overview: Most of the moves this week were simply made because our players were on bye, but there were a few exceptions. The big switched happened on Bennett's team, where he tried to upgrade at wideout by picking up Barr and sliding Kenny Bell over to his bench. Bell has gotten off to a bit of a slow start, while Barr is sure to rack up some numbers with Wes Lunt under center. Both Bennett and Rittenberg also both substituted their defenses for more favorable matchups.

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)
Purdue QB Danny Etling
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Rutgers RB Paul James
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Penn State WR Jesse James
Ohio State kickers
Iowa defense
Bench: Michigan State QB Connor Cook (on bye)

Massive Attack (Ward)

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Penn State WR Geno Lewis
Nebraska kickers
Ohio State defense
Bench: Rutgers QB Gary Nova (vs. Penn State)

Legendary Leaders (Bennett)

Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Illinois WR Martize Barr
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Maryland kickers
Michigan defense
Bench: Nebraska WR Kenny Bell (at Fresno State)

Coal Crackers (Moyer)

Illinois QB Wes Lunt
Iowa QB Jake Rudock
Penn State RB Bill Belton
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Michigan kickers
Penn State defense
Bench: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (on bye)

Sherman Tanks (Sherman)

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Michigan RB Derrick Green
Penn State RB Zach Zwinak
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Penn State kickers
Nebraska defense
Bench: Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford (on bye)

Big Ten morning links

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET
In just more than 48 hours, the Big Ten can finally get back on the field and start erasing those painful memories from last week. Maybe the opportunities to wash out the stains of a miserable Week 2 aren't as plentiful this Saturday, but the process has to start somewhere. These three developments will be key, and there's plenty of news to dive into after that.

1. Jerry Kill's old buddy and a guy he hails as a defensive genius is certainly cooking up something special for Minnesota's visit, and TCU coach Gary Patterson isn't going to take it easy on his longtime friend. The road trip is going to be difficult no matter what, but it might be more manageable now that quarterback Mitch Leidner is officially expected to play against the Horned Frogs. There's been uncertainty swirling around the sophomore since he injured his knee late in Saturday's win over Middle Tennessee State, and while Minnesota had been publicly optimistic about his availability throughout the week, Kill made it quite clear on Wednesday that Leidner would be playing. The Gophers haven't exactly lit the world on fire through two games offensively, but taking their field general out of the lineup would have made for a pretty tall order against a coach who isn't afraid to dial up some pressure packages.

2. The offseason quarterback competition at Michigan always seemed contrived and destined to be won by Devin Gardner, more of a challenge to the starter than an indicator of a tight competition. Coming off another turnover-filled loss, it seems more clear than ever that the Wolverines don't have an alternative they feel confident enough to play with Brady Hoke standing firmly behind his senior. "He's our quarterback," Hoke said Wednesday. Those three words can always change if Gardner has any more 3-interception outings, and the loss at Notre Dame was only one game. But if Shane Morris had really been challenging Gardner for playing time, wouldn't now be a perfect opportunity to test him out with Miami (Ohio) coming to the Big House?

3. Which seems stranger at this early juncture: Ohio State ranking No. 10 in the conference in rushing or Indiana sitting last in the league in passing yardage? Those attacks were the best in the Big Ten a year ago in those categories, showing how differently the spread could be used to keep defenses off balance and making it look easy to find the end zone. The Hoosiers have only played once, and they really didn't need to air it out to beat Indiana State, so perhaps Kevin Wilson's play-calling and the postgame stats sheet will be more recognizable after visiting Bowling Green. But the Buckeyes might have a tougher time getting back to what has been so successful for them until their young offensive line comes together and starts opening up the kind of holes four seniors provided Carlos Hyde last year.

East Division
  • Does being a "Michigan Man" give Hoke more fan support than his predecessor? He answered that question and defended the Big Ten.
  • James Franklin still isn't sure exactly how Penn State might be able to get all the way back up to 85 scholarship players by next season, even though it is once again allowed to hit that number.
  • The atmosphere for primetime games and the chance to play in matchups like Saturday's against Penn State is part of the reason Darius Hamilton signed with Rutgers.
  • Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is expecting shifting looks and personnel from West Virginia ahead of the showdown on Saturday.
  • Ohio State had some problems with drops in its loss to Virginia Tech. It might look to break in a couple new faces at wide receiver against Kent State.
  • Instead of hearing from teammates wanting the ball from him, Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld is getting more requests for unique handshakes.
  • A closer look at some Michigan State players who are off to slow starts.
West Division
  • Illinois will have its hands full with a Washington offense coming off a 59-point outburst. Expect a shootout on Saturday.
  • Nebraska has had to tweak its travel plans for the long journey over to Fresno State and the late kickoff when the program gets there.
  • Another series with Notre Dame is coming to an end, although it's only temporary and there's far less fanfare around the annual meetings with Purdue.
  • Pat Fitzgerald isn't just blowing smoke about toughening up Northwestern based on the practice location on Wednesday.
  • Friends may not like to play against each other, but TCU coach Gary Patterson said there weren't any other options as the two programs put together a home-and-home.
  • What is going on with Iowa's rushing attack?
  • Wisconsin has already played more true freshmen this year than it did all of last season.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
10:00
AM ET
Maybe you were like a lot of fans on Sunday around the Big Ten who don’t follow Minnesota or Rutgers: You had no reason to want to know what people were saying about your team.

You needed a break. So you went off the grid, perhaps turned to the NFL for a shoulder on which to cry.

But it’s Monday, and you’re back, ready to face the college football world. You missed Big Ten commish Jim Delany urging patience in the aftermath of a Saturday dumpster fire and ESPN Insider’s Playoff Predictor, suggesting that hope still exists for the league this year.

We all know that’s not what you want. You want answers. Why did it all go so badly in the Big Ten on Saturday? Again. Well, I’ve got nothing fancy for you, other than to say that the Big Ten needs better players and coaches and schemes.

The results of Saturday were symptomatic of a problem with no short-term fix. Painful as it may be, let’s review:

Team of the week: Here you go, Minnesota fans who believe the Gophers are regularly overlooked for the flashier, big-name programs. It’s substance over style with Jerry Kill’s group, which jumped to a 28-0 halftime lead over Middle Tennessee and required no drama in moving to 2-0 -- more than can be said for every other team in the league. The Gophers got just 67 passing yards from Mitch Leidner, but the running game was strong as usual, and the defense intercepted three passes.

Game of the week: Seventy-six points, four lead changes. Three fourth-quarter touchdowns by Illinois to earn a second straight come-from behind win. What’s not to love? Oh, yes it came at home against Western Kentucky, a week after the Illini roared back to beat Youngstown State. Nevertheless, Wes Lunt and the Illini are nothing if not resilient. Illinois trailed 27-21 early in the fourth quarter before Justin Hardee snagged a 62-yard TD. Taylor Barton then all but clinched it with a 77-yard interception return. Lunt, in his second start, threw for 456 yards.

Biggest play: Ameer Abdullah’s 58-yard touchdown reception in the final minute at Memorial Stadium allowed Nebraska to avoid overtime and possibly the biggest upset loss in school history against McNeese State of the Football Championship Subdivision. Abdullah caught a short pass in flat from Tommy Armstrong Jr. and broke five tackles en route to the end zone, providing the difference in the Huskers’ 31-24 victory.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock for his 9-of-11, cool-under-fire performance during the Hawkeyes’ marches to score two touchdowns in the final three minutes of a 17-13 win over Ball State.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Can we just give this to Virginia Tech’s ferocious pass rush against a hapless Ohio State pass-protection unit, which offered no chance for freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett to thrive? No? OK, then kudos to Penn State linebacker Mike Hull, who collected 11 tackles as the Nittany Lions held Akron to 69 rushing yards in a 21-3 win.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland fullback Kenny Goins, who blocked a South Florida punt in the end zone. Linebacker Avery Thompson recovered for the go-ahead touchdown in the Terrapins’ 24-17 win.

Biggest face plant: Tempting to go with Northwestern, which failed to score in the first half of the closest thing to a must-win game in Week 2, losing 23-15 to Northern Illinois. Or Purdue for continuing to be Purdue in a 38-17 loss to Central Michigan. But there’s no just denying Michigan. Come on, Michigan. The Wolverines were mauled by Notre Dame, 31-0. They rushed for 100 yards on 35 carries, committed four turnovers and generally made things way too easy for the Fighting Irish.

Numbers and facts to know: Michigan’s FBS-record streak of 365 straight without losing by shutout is over. The margin of victory was Notre Dame’s largest in series history. U-M quarterback Devin Gardner, who had not thrown an interception in his previous five games, was picked off three times to equal a career high. ... Ohio State lost its first home opener since 1978 and its first home game under Urban Meyer. Its 108 rushing yards were the fewest in a game under Meyer. ... Michigan State, in losing 46-27 at Oregon, allowed more points than in any game since Alabama scored 49 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. ... Wisconsin won its 30th straight nonconference home game, 37-3 over Western Illinois. Melvin Gordon’s 38 rushing yards marked his lowest total over the past two seasons. ... Bo Pelini won his 60th game as coach at Nebraska, joining only Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney in school history.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Even among the largest crowd in college football history, Devin Gardner's knack for finding one particular face in the stands worked again.

The Michigan quarterback is always able to pick out his mom from the field, and doing it with so many extra bodies crammed into the Big House and the boisterous postgame celebration that followed perhaps his most impressive victory after knocking off Notre Dame is still burned into his brain.

“It's weird, but somehow I'm always able to find her,” Gardner said. “And after the game, it was an amazing feeling. You know, it was the largest crowd to ever watch a football game, so you try to block it out during the game, but once the game is over, you kind of realize, ‘Wow, this is cool.'

“Walking off the field with a win. That's my No. 1 memory.”

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner was nearly perfect in Week 1 against Appalachian State, completing 13 of 14 passes with three TDs.
Gardner made plenty of them in a thrilling win for the Wolverines, and his four touchdowns in the last scheduled meeting with the Irish at Michigan Stadium won't soon be forgotten.

But there was one lowlight that might be every bit as memorable, and in some ways it might actually be the easiest play to recall from the game. And it's also one which provides something of a tidy summary for Gardner's career with the Wolverines to this point.

For all his success commanding the huddle and handling the environment, the effectiveness he displayed as a rusher and the clutch throws he made to knock off Notre Dame, it was a brain lapse in the end zone and a gift-wrapped interception for a touchdown that tightened up the game and offered what would be a glimpse at Gardner's up-and-down junior season.

He was capable of brilliance like accounting for five total touchdowns against the Irish or carving up Ohio State for 451 yards and four scores despite battling through an injury. But Gardner was also prone to turnover issues during his 11-interception campaign, like the costly toss to the Irish that produced a rare zero-yard return for a score or the do-or-die two-point conversion attempt that was picked off by the Buckeyes' Tyvis Powell to overshadow a gutsy effort in The Game.

Gardner did more than enough to overcome that mistake against the Irish and even a decent defensive outing against Ohio State would have given him another win to improve his reputation as a big-game quarterback for a program that is battling its own fight with national perception coming off seasons that don't meet the Michigan standard. But discussions about how he's viewed outside the program appear to matter little to Gardner, even with another chance to change the conversation on Saturday at Notre Dame.

“People are going to say what they want, but my teammates know that I did everything I could to help us win,” Gardner said. “It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks.

“I just keep the main thing the main thing, and that's winning the game and doing everything I have to do to win. Do my job every play, and if everybody else goes out collectively and does that we'll be fine.”

There was hardly a unit that didn't look capable of handling its duties last week in a season-opening rout of Appalachian State.

Wide receiver Devin Funchess was a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, and he torched the Mountaineers with three straight touchdowns to start the year. The defense pitched a first-half shutout before starting to turn its eyes toward the Irish, and the special teams chipped in a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as well.

But Gardner, in good times and bad, is always under the brightest spotlight. And if his senior debut was an opportunity to showcase his own personal improvement, it's hard to argue with a performance that included just one incompletion, no turnovers -- and one more victory stroll to the locker room.

“[Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] always tells us we have to have our own identities as individuals in the offense,” Funchess said. “I think Devin found his swag and his comfort level.”

For both Gardner and the Wolverines, that confidence could lead to a few more happy memories.

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams: Week 2

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
12:00
PM ET
There might be more competition and increased trash talk from last season -- but Adam Rittenberg’s Trombone Shorties sure had their way with the league this week.

They outscored 99.7 percent of all Big Ten entries in the ESPN College Football Challenge and outscored all of us by at least 35 points. It wasn’t pretty and, for three of us, there is nowhere to go but up. Your Week 1 results:

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg): 173 points
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 136 points
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 108 points
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 104 points
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 96 points

There is some hope for the rest of us. The last-place team picks first on the waiver wire and, after everyone took a turn, the pick went back to the worst team. We also added a bench spot we plan to keep the rest of the season so teams don’t feel obligated to drop their top guys during a bye week. Sherman, Ward and I need all the help we can get.

Here is a look at the waiver-wire action this week:

Sherman adds Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton

Rationale: It looks as if the Nittany Lions will have to pass the ball quite a bit this season, and Hamilton could end up being the No. 1 receiver on the team. A definite upgrade over some of the Sherman Tanks’ other wideouts.

Moyer adds Illinois QB Wes Lunt

Rationale: I’m now dead to Brian Bennett -- but it’s so worth it. Bennett wanted Lunt in our original draft, but he wasn’t listed in ESPN’s database for some reason, so we decided to skip over him. He’s in there now, and Illinois’ system should get him plenty of fantasy points.

Ward adds Rutgers QB Gary Nova

Rationale: With Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld on a bye, there needed to be some kind of replacement here. Nova looked good against Washington State last week, plus the Knights take on Howard this week. The only concern is if Rutgers plugs in its second-team or runs out the clock too soon.

Bennett adds Michigan RB Derrick Green

Rationale: Green is arguably the top running back left on the board, and Indiana's Tevin Coleman is on bye, so this move made a lot of sense. Green rushed for 170 yards last week and, although he faces a tougher test against Notre Dame on Saturday, he should still see his share of carries.

Rittenberg adds Ohio State kickers

Rationale: Once again, with the Indiana kickers on bye, another corps was needed. Although the Buckeyes face a good defense in Virginia Tech, this is a kicking group that should nail plenty of easy PATs this season. This isn’t necessarily a one-week Band-Aid.

Sherman adds Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo and drops Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Rationale: An upgrade was definitely needed at receiver, so that was the focus in the first two picks here. First came Hamilton and now Carroo. The Rutgers receiver is a speedy guy who can score touchdowns from anywhere on the field, and he appears to be Nova’s top target. That is an ideal fantasy combination.

Moyer adds Michigan State WR Tony Lippett and drops Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner

Rationale: With Lunt, there is no need for another quarterback -- and Indiana receiver Shane Wynn is on bye. If the Spartans trail Oregon, like Vegas is predicting they are, they are probably going to have to throw quite a bit. And Lippett had 167 receiving yards last week.

Ward adds Nebraska kickers and drops Northwestern kickers

Rationale: The Wildcats struggled last week to score against a bad defense, and the Cornhuskers are playing McNeese State on Saturday. Need I say more?

Bennett adds Rutgers defense and drops Iowa defense

Rationale: It’s all about matchups, and Rutgers looks to score a lot more fantasy points than the Hawkeyes this week. Rutgers plays a Howard team that was dominated by Akron, 41-0, so a shutout is a definite possibility here.

Rittenberg adds Wisconsin RB Corey Clement and drops Indiana kickers

Rationale: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon is fine ... probably. But the Badgers are going to lean more on running the ball, especially the next few weeks, so Clements’ value only increases. He will be a nice addition to the fantasy bench, for use during byes or in case any injuries pop up.

Bennett adds Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp and drops Northwestern WR Tony Jones

Rationale: Fantasy football is all about the numbers. So take a look at these: Jones -- 64 yards, 0 TDs. Westerkamp -- 125 yards, 1 TD. Nebraska has another easy matchup this weekend, so banking on Westerkamp is the smart move.

Now, onto our complete rosters for Week 2, including our bench spot:

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)

Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Rutgers RB Paul James
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Penn State WR Jesse James
Ohio State kickers
Minnesota defense
Bench: Wisconsin RB Corey Clement (vs. W. Illinois)

Legendary Leaders (Bennett)

Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Michigan RB Derrick Green
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Maryland kickers
Rutgers defense
Bench: Indiana RB Tevin Coleman (on bye)

Massive Attack (Ward)

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Rutgers QB Gary Nova
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Penn State WR Geno Lewis
Nebraska kickers
Ohio State defense
Bench: Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld (on bye)

Coal Crackers (Moyer)

Illinois QB Wes Lunt
Iowa QB Jake Rudock
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Michigan State kickers
Michigan State defense
Bench: Indiana WR Shane Wynn (on bye)

Sherman Tanks (Sherman)

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Penn State RB Zach Zwinak
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Penn State kickers
Nebraska defense
Bench: Maryland WR Deon Long (vs. South Florida)

Big Ten morning links

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
8:00
AM ET
We interrupt the latest round of back-pedaling at Wisconsin to peer three years into the Big Ten future, when its conference schedule finally follows the path of other Power Five leagues.

The Big Ten’s roster of games on Saturday includes of healthy dose of attractive matchups, featuring Michigan State at Oregon, Michigan at Notre Dame and Virginia Tech at Ohio State.

But wouldn’t you like to see Iowa-Northwestern? Bad example. How about Iowa-Minnesota?

You get the idea.

As the ACC, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 incorporate conference games into the early-season schedule -- just a tease for fans of the fun to come in October and November -- the Big Ten stands pat. In 2017, when the nine-game conference schedule takes hold, you’ll get Ohio State and Indiana on Labor Day weekend.

Others will follow, including Rutgers-Ohio State in Week 2 of 2018.

Until then, enjoy McNeese State-Nebraska. Really, that’s an unfair criticism. Every league’s composite schedules features dud games.

And as colleague Adam Rittenberg writes, plenty of excellent nonconference action is set to soon spice up the College Football Playoff era. The Big Ten is actively involved in this fantastic trend.

I can’t help but think, though, that the league is missing an opportunity right now.

A year after Florida State introduced the nation to Jameis Winston on Labor Day with an ACC visit to Pittsburgh, Texas A&M showcased freshman QB Kenny Hill last Thursday at South Carolina. And suddenly, Hill’s a Heisman candidate.

Auburn beat Arkansas last week. Louisville announced its presence in the ACC year in the league’s traditional first-Monday-of-September spot with a win over Miami. Stanford-USC, one of the Pac-12 marquee’s games, gets early-season placement on Saturday.

Kansas State visits Iowa State this week and Ole Miss plays at Vanderbilt.

Next week, the Big Ten’s got Penn State at Rutgers, an anomaly because it was scheduled before the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten. Still it counts for something alongside Louisville-Virginia, Arizona State-Colorado, Georgia-South Carolina and Florida-Kentucky.

What does Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz think about early league games?

“I really don’t have much reaction to that,” he said. “For us, it’s about playing whoever’s on our schedule, going out and playing to the best of our ability and improving each week. Typically, the good teams that we’ve had have been better in November than they were in September.”

Such logic, it seems, would also discourage the scheduling of elite nonconference foes. College football is headed in a different direction. Good teams are playing good teams in early September, even within their own leagues.

And in just three years, they’ll do it in the Big Ten, too.

Let’s go around the league . . .

East Division
West Division

And finally, James Franklin can’t make a wrong move these days. Remember the volcano in Iceland that threatened the Nittany Lions’ transatlantic travel to face Central Florida in Ireland? Within hours after Penn State returned home with a win in Franklin’s debut, it erupted.

 

Big Ten morning links

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
8:00
AM ET
On a Sunday night conference call with reporters, six days before another measuring-stick game for his team, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio provided a dose of perspective.

"Win or lose, you know, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that that's every bit as important as this one single game," Dantonio said.

He's right. As tempting as it can be to draw conclusions about teams and leagues after Week 1, it's also irresponsible. Seasons have plot twists. What we think is true on Sept. 1 rarely proves true on Jan. 1.

But there's an undeniable angst around the Big Ten entering Week 2. It might have been there even if Wisconsin had held onto a 17-point lead against LSU. But after the Badgers' collapse, which knocks them out of the playoff picture for now, the stakes are even higher.

I still think a narrow Michigan State loss to Oregon keeps the Spartans alive for a playoff spot. But a convincing defeat -- and, in the minds of some, any defeat -- will hurt the Big Ten's chances of having a representative.

League commissioner Jim Delany, in an interview with SI.com, called the MSU-Oregon game "disproportionally important" in terms of playoff perception. That phrase -- disproportionally important -- underscores the unfairness and the reality of Week 2 games like Spartans-Ducks.

It's not really fair to punish Michigan State for a loss -- Oregon is 34-2 at Autzen Stadium since the start of the 2009 season. But the bashing will come, perhaps more for the Big Ten than MSU, if the Spartans fall short.

There's also pressure for both Ohio State and Michigan in Week 2. The Buckeyes should win against a Virginia Tech team that isn't what it used to be, but Bud Foster's defense can be tricky, and Ohio State needs its revamped offensive line to improve after struggling for the first three quarters against Navy.

"Our offensive line did not play like an Ohio State offensive line," coach Urban Meyer said Monday. "The second half we played pretty good. But pretty good is not what we expect. You play pretty good this week you won't win that game."

Speaking of offensive lines, we'll have a better idea about Michigan's after Week 2. The embattled group looked better in the opener (350 rush yards), but Notre Dame, despite some personnel issues on defense, provides a better test.

Although beating Notre Dame hasn't been much of a springboard for Michigan in recent years, a road win would be huge for Brady Hoke's crew. A loss suggests there's still much to fix.

"The talent level [at Notre Dame] is very similar," Hoke said "That, as much as anything else, gives you a little bit of an idea about where we stand."

MSU, OSU and Michigan aren't the only Big Ten teams entering pressure-packed games. Northwestern can't afford to drop to 0-2 -- and lose its sixth straight home game -- against Northern Illinois. Purdue and Iowa face potentially tricky MAC foes in Central Michigan and Ball State. Wisconsin needs to get quarterback Tanner McEvoy going.

Patience is a nice idea, but it runs in short supply in college football. Don't kid yourselves: This is a huge week in the Big Ten.

Post-Labor Day linkage:

West Division
East Division
And, finally ...

Michigan State hopes to go all NES on its opponent Saturday ...

Five lessons from the opening week of Big Ten play.

1. Familiar issues preventing Wisconsin from next step: The Badgers had a wonderful chance to springboard themselves into the playoff conversation, as they had a young LSU team down 24-7 in the third quarter. But it unraveled in a hurry as several familiar problems -- and some bad luck on the injury front -- doomed Wisconsin in a 28-24 loss. Wisconsin won't become an elite program until it has more dynamic quarterback and receiver play to complement its bread-and-butter run, can avoid blunders in the kicking game and shores up the secondary. Injuries to two starting defensive linemen certainly hurt, and star running back Melvin Gordon wasn't right after a long run in the third quarter. But the same limitations we've seen before with the Badgers surfaced again in a painful season-opening loss. There's still a lot to play for, but a win would have been huge for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown but never seemed right again after a long run in the third quarter.
2. Quarterback play is on the uptick: To take a step forward as a league, the Big Ten must make strides at the most important position on the field. Week 1 was a promising start. Michigan State's Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year and played almost flawlessly (12-of-13 passing, 285 yards, three touchdowns) against Jacksonville State. Other veterans such as Michigan's Devin Gardner (13-of-14 passing, three touchdowns), Iowa's Jake Rudock and Rutgers' Gary Nova started off strong. Second-year players such as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Purdue's Danny Etling made big-time throws in victories, and Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett delivered in his debut as the starter. Illinois' offense had some hiccups but new starting quarterback Wes Lunt finished with four touchdown passes. No one will confuse the Big Ten's quarterback contingent with the Pac-12's, but there are some good signs heading into some bigger games.

3. PSU, OSU lines are works in progress: A Penn State offensive line with just one returning starter and two converted defensive tackles starting at the guard spots topped any fan's list of concerns entering the season. Ohio State's offensive line might not have been the biggest red flag following Braxton Miller's injury, but there was some curiosity with four new starters. Both units did some good things Saturday, especially down the stretch in wins against UCF and Navy, respectively. But Penn State struggled to get its power run going and endured two holding penalties and two false starts. Ohio State had just 71 rush yards on 24 attempts through the first three quarters against an undersized Navy defense. The Buckeyes finished strong (122 fourth-quarter rush yards) but need to make strides, beginning this week against Virginia Tech. Michigan also entered its opener with the offensive line in the spotlight. Although Appalachian State isn't a great gauge, Michigan got its ground game going with 350 yards and two 100-yard rushers (Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith).

4. Rutgers could be a surprise team: Few expected much from the Scarlet Knights, including the Big Ten reporter crew, but Kyle Flood's team began the season on an impressive note. It's never easy to travel to the West Coast, and Rutgers opened with a Washington State team poised to expose its shaky pass defense. Although Washington State racked up 532 pass yards, Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage and much of the game in a 41-38 win. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has made an immediate impact, and Rutgers showcased a powerful run game led by Paul James and a big-play pass attack. The defense still needs work, and the competition level will improve, but Rutgers should be 2-0 before its highly anticipated Big Ten debut Sept. 13 against Penn State at High Points Solutions Stadium.

5. Northwestern is reeling: Few FBS teams had a rockier offseason than Northwestern, which endured the union debate, Venric Mark's stunning departure and several key injuries in the preseason. Pat Fitzgerald always had found ways to get his teams ready for the season and entered Saturday with an 8-0 mark in openers. But Northwestern didn't look ready against Cal and was outplayed in all three phases during the first 42 minutes. The Wildcats made a nice run at the end of the third quarter and had chances to complete a comeback but went conservative at the wrong times and made too many errors in a 31-24 home loss, its fifth consecutive setback at Ryan Field. You wonder if this team has reached a breaking point after all the setbacks since the past October. A Week 2 win against Northern Illinois is critical.

B1G fantasy draft: team breakdowns

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
2:30
PM ET
We gave you a round-by-round look and analysis of our Big Ten fantasy draft, so we thought we would also offer an overview on each of our teams.

What were our strategies? And how do we think we fared? Check it all out below, and let us know who you think has the best lineup:

Adam Rittenberg (Trombone Shorties): I wanted a top-shelf running back and got one in Ameer Abdullah. He will produce yards, but I'd really like to see his touchdowns total increase. Both of my wide receivers are tight end types (Jesse James is still classified as one, Devin Funchess isn't) who create matchup problems for defenses and should have big seasons. You need at least one dual-threat quarterback because of the scoring system, and I like Tommy Armstrong's potential in his second year as the starter. Connor Cook doesn’t bring much as a runner, but if he builds on how he ended last season, he will put up plenty of points, too. Paul James is a dynamic player when healthy and should get plenty of carries as Rutgers' featured back. I wanted a defense I could keep for several weeks, and Minnesota's unit, which should once again be pretty stingy, should have little trouble shutting down Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee.

Can you hear that? It’s the sweet music of another Trombone Shorties championship, coming your way this fall.

Brian Bennett (Legendary Leaders): Quarterbacks can dominate this particular scoring system, so I was happy to grab Devin Gardner with the fourth overall pick. He put up more total fantasy points than any player in the Big Ten last season, by a pretty wide margin (if only he could play Indiana every week). Speaking of the Hoosiers, I was excited to see Tevin Coleman still around for my next pick, as he should be a fantasy stud this season. Not getting Wes Lunt was a bummer (and, guys, I should have dibs on him come waiver wire time, right?) but Maryland's C.J. Brown should be a fine option, racking up points every time he throws to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. If Ezekiel Elliott becomes Ohio State's featured back as expected, that could be a gold mine. My receiver spots are a little shakier, but I think that was the one position to punt since there weren't great options after the top couple of guys. It wasn't worth spending an early-round pick on a position that is really hit or miss in this fantasy system. Iowa's defense should be strong all year long with that schedule. I'm feeling good about my team, though injuries and the double-bye weeks can always wreak havoc.

Mitch Sherman (Sherman Tanks): Yards matter, but touchdowns mean more. My first pick, Jeremy Langford, reached the end zone nearly as often as Melvin Gordon and Abdullah combined last season. With Michigan State’s improved offense and less reliance this fall on the defense, Langford’s opportunities figure only to increase. I’m banking heavily on the Penn State offense, with quarterback Christian Hackenberg after a 20-touchdown freshman season and running back Zach Zwinak, who is good in the red zone. Throw in the PSU kickers, too, for good measure, though I will have to make some roster adjustments in October as the Nittany Lions get two bye weeks. Deon Long, despite facing some criticism from Maryland coach Randy Edsall early in preseason camp, is ready for a big senior season as he returns from a broken leg. I’m expecting similar production from Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has shown his game-breaking skills in the return game. Trevor Siemian, with the job to himself at Northwestern, can accumulate numbers in the passing game. And the Nebraska defense is solid as the strength of Bo Pelini’s team.

Josh Moyer (Coal Crackers): I would have preferred to draft last so I could’ve picked up a blue-chip running back and a top quarterback. But you have to adapt, right? Gordon was an easy decision as the No. 1 overall pick. Since my initial strategy was basically busted right off the bat, I took an advantage as soon as I saw one -- when only one wideout was taken in the first nine spots. I drafted Shane Wynn and Stefon Diggs back-to-back, so I now have the best corps of receivers in our league. By far. I’d also argue I have the best defense and kickers by twice choosing Michigan State. Mark Weisman isn’t a bad RB2, either. What does that leave? Well, admittedly, that leaves my weakest spot: Quarterback. I took Jake Rudock late in the draft and Mitch Leidner as my last pick. I wasn’t getting good value, so I kept holding off. Hopefully those two can produce some running TDs for me, and if one of them can break out, then Adam can start waving good-bye to that championship trophy.

Austin Ward (Massive Attack): Indiana might not be anybody’s favorite to win the Big Ten this fall. But to compete in a Big Ten fantasy league, there had better be at least one player from that team on your roster, so there was no need to wait when the third pick came around. Though grabbing Nate Sudfeld there might seem a bit premature, with each team playing two quarterbacks, grabbing the guy most likely to lead the conference in passing while guiding such an explosive attack felt like the smartest play. Complementing him with J.T. Barrett in the later rounds was a bonus, because Braxton Miller's replacement at Ohio State is also going to be at the controls in a high-octane spread system with plenty of skill players around him. That should allow him to rack up decent passing numbers which he will supplement with his rushing ability. Leading with those two quarterbacks, this team should be poised to consistently put up big numbers.

B1G fantasy draft: round-by-round analysis

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
2:00
PM ET
Big Ten football kicks off in just a few hours. So you know what that means – the start of tailgates, packed stadiums and unforgettable upsets. And, of course, the start of another season of our Big Ten fantasy league.

The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg) and the team formerly known as The One Who Knocks (Brian Bennett) won’t have it easy anymore. The Big Ten fantasy league is no longer just a head-to-head battle. Now, in Year 4 of the league, there are five of us – and the competition and trash talk are intense. (If you want to play college fantasy football, too, you can do so through ESPN’s College Football Challenge.)

We held a live eight-round draft earlier this week, and below you’ll find our draft results – along with a brief analysis by Josh Moyer on each round:

 

Round 1: The No. 2 overall pick is the trickiest in this draft. Melvin Gordon is the easy No. 1 – but where do you go from there? On one hand, running back is deep, but the top four at the position could be gone when the pick comes around again. Rittenberg opted to play it safe by picking Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, widely regarded as the second-best offensive player in the B1G. But he might come to regret the pick if Abdullah can’t find the end zone more often. Abdullah averaged 19.8 fantasy points a game last season, which was behind Tevin Coleman (20.79 points) and just slightly ahead of Jeremy Langford (19.42 points), who really took off in Game 6. … Quarterbacks and wideouts were at a premium, so Ward and Bennett focused on quarterback in the first round. There are no point deductions for turnovers, so the Devin Gardner pick was a smart one.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesWisconsin's Melvin Gordon was an easy pick as the No. 1 player in the Big Ten blog's fantasy draft.
Round 2: Let the run on wide receivers begin. If teams didn’t spend one of their first two picks on the position, then it was basically impossible to get an elite player. Rittenberg struck first with Devin Funchess, stealing my pick. I “settled” on Indiana’s Shane Wynn. … Everyone knew Bennett’s pick before he made it, but it was another great one with Coleman. Bennett probably had the best first two rounds out of any of us. … Ward’s pick of Josh Ferguson in the second round was mildly surprising since we don’t get a point per reception, but the running back picture was more muddled after the first four went off the board.

Round 3: I started off the third round with Stefon Diggs – giving me the top overall receiver combo with Wynn-Diggs – but definitely guaranteeing I’ll be in a hole later when it comes to quarterback. Rittenberg didn’t want the same to happen so he opted to take his first quarterback in Connor Cook. … This is when the draft started getting interesting. Sherman took Maryland’s Deon Long as the fourth overall receiver. It could certainly pay off in the end, but it certainly wasn’t a “safe” pick with Diggs as Maryland's top target and with proven commodities such as Ohio State’s Devin Smith still on the board. … Poor Bennett got the short end of the stick when he tried to draft Illinois’ Wes Lunt – but he wasn’t in ESPN’s draft database for some reason. So we decided as a group to exclude him; Bennett took Maryland’s C.J. Brown instead. A fantasy downgrade for sure.

Round 4: Maybe someone should’ve sent Sherman a memo on Penn State’s offensive line because he took Zach Zwinak over some other prime options. But Sherman’s banking on the goal-line value of Zwinak, who scored 12 TDs last season. Zwinak could be like fantasy football’s 2004 version of Jerome Bettis. … With few receivers left, Smith was a solid pick by Ward and definitely his best value of the draft so far.

Round 5: I took my first quarterback in Iowa’s Jake Rudock, as I’m banking on some extra value thanks to his penchant for running close to the goal line. (He had five rush TDs last season.) But, in retrospect, that might not have been the best move. Ward got another good value pick in Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett – and, while Rudock is the safer pick, Barrett certainly has the higher ceiling. Part of me is regretting my choice already. … Bennett’s great draft continued by grabbing the best remaining receiver in Kenny Bell. If he can meet his 2012 touchdown production (8), this could be the best-value receiver pick of the draft. … Rittenberg also made a good move with Rutgers’ running back Paul James, who has a few early games against bad defenses. If he falters when the schedule gets harder, there’s always the waiver wire.

Round 6: Flag on the play, Sherman! The Sherman Tanks initially tried to draft Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson, a hybrid back, as a receiver – but ESPN’s database listed him only as a running back. So Sherman had to pick again and chose Iowa’s Kevonte-Martin Manley. … Ward was not happy with the remaining receiver selection at all. It showed in his pick; Penn State’s Geno Lewis could be third in receiving on Penn State by the time the season ends. … Rittenberg made an interesting move by picking Minnesota’s defense first, over Michigan State’s defense. His reasoning was solid, though. MSU plays Oregon in Week 2 and then has a bye. So he didn’t want to work the waiver wire that early. Me? I took the Spartans’ D with the next pick, and I’ll ride it out.

Rounds 7-8: It was mostly all kickers and defenses in the final two rounds. Rittenberg took Penn State tight end Jesse James to fill his last receiver spot in the sixth round, and it was a good pick for being the 10th receiver/tight end taken. James is 6-foot-7 and could be a nice red-zone target for Christian Hackenberg this season. … The only other non-defense/kicker came from me. I needed a quarterback, so this year’s Mr. Irrelevant is Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner. Quarterback is definitely my weakness. But I don’t care if Leidner throws 40 percent -- as long he scores a rushing TD every game.

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
10:00
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.

Big Ten morning links

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
8:00
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Game week is here. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:

1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.

The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.

2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.

4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.

"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."

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Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:00
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

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Other stuff

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
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