Big Ten: Jake Rudock
Big Ten media days kick off on Monday at the Hilton Chicago. All the other Power 5 conferences will have wrapped up their own media events by then, and each league does things a little bit differently. So today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten change the format of its media days?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
One thing that can be said about Big Ten media days is fans have much more access to it than they do in other leagues. The centerpiece of the two days is Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon, during which fans can listen to a few minutes from every coach, hear a keynote speech from a current player and get autographs from former players. It's a 40-plus-year tradition, and at $110 a plate, a nice moneymaker for the league (because the Big Ten, you know, is pretty cash poor these days).
The SEC's format is far too long in my view, but that league certainly monopolizes coverage on those days, and individual teams get more of a spotlight. Now at 14 teams, I'd like to see the Big Ten devote more time to its event. More time to spend with Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, etc. More time to get to know some of the personalities. More time with players and programs who aren't in the spotlight. Not that the Big Ten needs more fans, necessarily, but more media coverage equals more exposure and more attention, which could help everybody in the long run.
My preference is for the conference to add an extra day and split the teams up, either by division or by interest level. You could have them all together on the middle day for the luncheon. This is probably all just inside baseball and I'm not sure how much fans really care. But as the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, its media days should probably follow suit.
Take 2: Mitch Sherman
I'm actually stunned you're taking the time to read this, because who cares, really, what the media thinks about the format of a preseason event to promote the conference? We're likely going to cover this thing regardless of how the Big Ten structures it, so our opinion on the setup is probably the least of anyone's concern. That said, I'll offer my two cents.
I agree with Brian that it ought to be longer. Monday's schedule includes 14 coaches and 42 players crammed into five hours. By mid-afternoon, my head might be spinning so fast that I can't differentiate between Pat Fitzgerald and Urban Meyer. OK, it's not that bad, but you get the picture. This thing is nearly over before it starts. And I'd like to see commissioner Jim Delany open the event with his comments, rather than speak during the final 30 minutes on Monday. By late afternoon, some of our brains are fried to the point that it's difficult to formulate intelligent questions. (Who am I kidding? There's no specific time for that.)
If you're still reading, I've got another suggestion: Every team should bring a quarterback. This year, seven are planned to attend, which is actually pretty good in comparison to some other leagues. QB is the premier position in college football; there's no denying it. I understand not every job is completely settled, so Illinois gets a pass here, though Wes Lunt could have brought the Illini some attention in Chicago. But if you're going to have an event for the media -- is it really for the media, or is that just the name? -- bring the players to whom the media wants to speak. That means, yes, we'd like to see Christian Hackenberg, Jake Rudock, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and even Gary Nova.
I will now dismount my soapbox. Congratulations, or perhaps condolences, if you made it to the end.
Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
- Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O’Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
- Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
- The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. Fyor good measure, Central Florida Knight won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
- Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
- Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
- James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league – not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall – Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
- The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
- Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hotshot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
- Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
- The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Trevor Siemian of Northwestern. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Jake Rudock of Iowa. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
@AWardESPN are people underestimating Rutgers in there first big 10 season?— Michael Isselin (@MichaelIsselin) July 16, 2014
Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.
@AWardESPN How important will QBs be in the race for the B1G West, who is the best of those QBs, and why is it Wes Lunt?— Aaron Rench (@ARench89) July 18, 2014
Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.
@AWardESPN other than Raekwon/Bosa (obivous) who do you see making the biggest impact on defense of the 1st and 2nd yr players?— Michael Doty Sr (@MdotySr) July 18, 2014
Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..
The Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback envisioned plenty of time to game plan for the upcoming season, breaking down opponents and scheming up new ways to attack them during those extra hours in the film room. There might also be more time to take a deeper dive into his own team from the season before, combing through all the plays and taking note of every pass or decision that could have been improved and taking it straight to the offseason practice field.
In reality, the college offseason doesn’t really lend itself to brainstorming for the first few teams on the schedule for the Hawkeyes, and much of the usefulness of reviewing the tape of last season’s eight-win campaign is already gone after watching it during the winter. Rudock is still soaking up film in between rigorous workouts and throwing sessions with his teammates, but it turns out popping in video of spring practice is where the junior has actually found some value.
“But the fact is, there are a lot of faces that change, tendencies can change, so you have to focus on yourself and do what you can to get the team better instead of worrying about what other teams are doing.”
The Hawkeyes are one of those teams working on shaking up some tendencies, and that leaves more than enough for them to do without scheming for the season opener against Northern Iowa on Aug. 30.
Iowa isn’t about to abandon its smash-mouth offensive style any time soon, even with a veteran starter returning at quarterback who proved in a handful of games last season that he was more than capable of airing out the football. But Iowa is making a concerted effort to increase the tempo a bit more this fall in an effort to keep defenses more off balance and limit their chances to make substitutions, and Rudock’s ability to command the attack and make the necessary reads and checks will be critical in the installation of that updated approach.
“Decision-making, being smart with the ball, work more on timing with the receivers, looking at film to see the checks we made and what we could have done better or maybe a little bit quicker,” Rudock said. “Sometimes it’s just making a check two or three seconds sooner that would help the offense a lot more. There’s a lot of little things that go into it and can help the team, which is obviously the goal at the end of the day.”
Rudock showed that he could deliver some bigger things in his first year as the starter a year ago, throwing for nearly 2,400 yards with 18 touchdowns and completing 59 percent of his attempts during Iowa’s somewhat surprisingly successful season. With a talented offensive line returning and what appears to be a full set of weapons around him, there appears to be plenty of room for those numbers to go up this fall.
But that might be getting ahead of things just a bit for Rudock. He might have a pretty good idea of where the offense is headed after reviewing the progress made during the spring, and obviously the summer workouts are all designed to help the Hawkeyes take another step forward. For now, though, he’s learned by this stage in his career that there is no sense even looking ahead one more month.
“I believe you really can’t do too much about it, because then you stop focusing a little bit and get too far ahead,” Rudock said. “Right now, the most important thing is our workout that comes in about an hour and a half.
“Then after that it will be tomorrow’s workout.”
In the meantime there will probably be some time to squeeze in one of those summer study sessions. Just like the workouts, the focus will still be all on Iowa.
To your questions:
Brian Bennett: Good question. The Buckeyes-Spartans showdown is unquestionably the top draw, at least on paper in the preseason. We'll see whether the two defending division champs can live up to their hype in the first two months. It's not so easy to pick out the clear No. 2 game, simply because the rest of the contenders are pretty bunched up. If I had to pick one, I'd go with Nebraska at Wisconsin on Nov. 15. Both should be top contenders for the West Division title, and there's a nice little rivalry brewing between the two programs, even if they've only played one close game since the Huskers joined the league. Then again, either one of Iowa's final two games -- both at home, against Wisconsin and Nebraska -- could end up looming just as large or even larger on the conference schedule. And Ohio State-Michigan is always, like, kind of important.
@ESPN_BigTen Besides Msu-Ohio St November 8th and the rivalry games whats the next 'Game to watch' in conference play- Posa (@insp3ct0rb4c0n1) July 14, 2014
Max. C from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I really don't know why many people aren't giving Ohio State a chance to go undefeated next season. Here are my thoughts. Ohio State's first two games are against Navy and Virginia Tech, two teams that are below average passing teams. That will give the Buckeyes' secondary a chance to gel together and get used to the new system. No. 2: The offensive line will be good as always. No. 3: They have Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith and Ezekiel Elliott, plus a lot of other young talent. I think they're stocked.
Brian Bennett: Ohio State has a schedule that's more challenging up and down than it was a year ago. When you add in Cincinnati, there are three nonconference games that carry the potential for an upset. Then again, the Hokies and Bearcats each come to Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeyes figure to be significant favorites, and Ohio State has vastly superior talent to Navy. For me, it really comes down to whether Urban Meyer's team can navigate tough road trips to Penn State and, of course, Michigan State. I don't see any other games on the Big Ten schedule that should seriously threaten the Buckeyes. Like you said, Max, the schedule sets up well to allow the secondary to gel, but the offensive line had better come together quickly. I suspect it will.
Brian Bennett: I do like the potential of the Hawkeyes' offense quite a bit this year. They have a veteran quarterback now in Jake Rudock, along with a stable of experienced and talented backs. They might have the best offensive line in the league and most likely the top offensive tackle in Brandon Scherff. And there looks to be more speed and explosiveness -- finally -- at the receiver position for Greg Davis to exploit. Still, lighting up the scoreboard isn't usually Kirk Ferentz's style. He prefers to control the ball on the ground, rely on strong defense and -- unfortunately sometimes -- play the field-position game. There have been notable exceptions, of course, such as when Iowa averaged 37.2 points per game to lead the Big Ten in 2002. But in more recent years, his better teams haven't been high-scoring ones, such as when the Hawkeyes were 10th in the Big Ten in points per game in 2009. Iowa has embraced some notable changes, such as using the hurry-up on occasion. And its schedule should provide opportunities to rack up some big numbers early on. Still, with other potentially potent offenses in the league like Ohio State, Indiana, Northwestern, Nebraska, etc., I have a hard time seeing Iowa finish among the leaders in scoring this year. Which doesn't really matter, as long as the team wins.
@ESPN_BigTen Can Iowa surprise some people this season and have one of the top offenses in the B1G?- Matt Punelli (@MattPunelli) July 14, 2014
Samuel from Iowa City writes: You wrote: "But, hey, the East-West is here the way it is, so let's see how it plays out. "Brian, after what happened to the Legends and the Leaders, surely you don't believe the East and the West are completely safe?
Brian Bennett: As we have learned in recent years, even some of the staunchest traditions in college football can change dramatically. True, the Legends and Leaders last only three years (pause for a moment of silence). I would expect the East and West divisions to have a longer shelf life, especially with the league having scheduled out to 2019 already. The one thing that could blow up the current division setup quickly is another round of expansion. That doesn't seem to be on the immediate horizon, but you can never say never anymore. If the divisions prove to be too imbalanced one way or another, I think the league would look at reorganizing them. But it would be several years down the road before that happened.
@ESPN_BigTen what can we expect from Siemian this year. Dan Persa numbers? Heard they're going back to the Persa/Kafka offense— Keb (@Keb_02) July 14, 2014
Brian Bennett: I think Northwestern would be pretty happy if Trevor Siemian could replicate his numbers from last year's season finale: 414 passing yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. Of course, you don't get to play the Illinois defense every week. In all seriousness, I think Siemian could be in line for a very good year. The Wildcats aren't going to be running the option very much when he's in there, or at least they shouldn't, since he has run for a total of 100 yards (on 74 carries) in three years. Kain Colter, he's not, both for good and bad. Northwestern also has a veteran receiving corps that should lead to a strong passing game. One concern: Siemian completed less than 60 percent of his passes the last two seasons. He needs to get his accuracy up closer to the Persa range, or at least make it more Kafkaesque, while improving his decision-making. As a senior with the job to himself, Siemian should improve in that area.
Quarterback is a position that likely needs to improve throughout the Big Ten in order for the league to start winning championships. But the good news there are some stars returning at the position in 2014. Taking a page from our ACC blog friends, we're previewing all the positions this preseason, and none are more important than this one:
Best of the best: Ohio State
Several teams return productive starters under center, which is a good thing for the league. But no one else has a player quite like the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller. The senior is coming off two straight Big Ten offensive player of the year awards, and is now in his third season of the same system under Tom Herman and Urban Meyer -- he should feel extremely comfortable. There is some slight concern about his offseason shoulder surgery, which left him sitting out of spring drills, and an inexperienced offensive line. But Miller has showed the ability to make magic practically on his own, and few are better in the clutch. His absence this spring meant important reps for youngsters Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who would have to step in this season if anything happens to Miller.
Next up: Penn State
Christian Hackenberg passed for 2,955 yards as an 18-year-old true freshman and led impressive comebacks against Illinois and Michigan. The Nittany Lions' young star does have a new coaching staff and system and won't get to enjoy the talents of Allen Robinson any more, but his talent is immense. Penn State and Ohio State aren't the only teams in great shape at quarterback, though. Michigan State's Connor Cook was the MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl and should continue to improve. Michigan's Devin Gardner finished second in the league in total offense in 2013 despite little help from the run game. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has the job to himself after Tre Roberson's transfer and could easily surpass 3,000 yards in the Hoosiers' prolific system. Jake Rudock is a solid leader for Iowa who should have better weapons surrounding him this fall.
Possible sleeper: Maryland
C.J. Brown is a fifth-year senior entering his third year of starting after an injury cut down his 2012 campaign. He needs to stay healthy and improve on his 58.9 completion percentage from 2013. But with arguably the best pair of wideouts in the Big Ten at his disposal in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Brown has a chance to put up some strong numbers in his first go-around in this league. Keep an eye also on Illinois and probable starter Wes Lunt; Bill Cubit's offense helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's surprise leading passer a year ago.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
Problem is far too strong of a word here, but the Huskers don't have a sure thing at quarterback. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a good leader and owns a burning desire to improve, so there's reason to be optimistic that the sophomore will handle the job just fine. Still, he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes last season, had eight interceptions against nine touchdown passes and wasn't the running threat that Taylor Martinez used to be. Wisconsin has its own quarterback issues, but Joel Stave -- the subject of much offseason hand-wringing -- is far more proven than Armstrong. Nebraska will need solid quarterback play in early tests against Fresno State and Miami (Fla.).
Most teams might struggle to replace a three-year starting tight end with Fiedorowicz's talent. Then again, most teams don't have Iowa's tight end tradition.
So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Iowa isn't sweating the loss of Fiedorowicz too much. Plenty of others are ready to carry on the tradition.
"We're going to miss him," senior Ray Hamilton told ESPN.com. "But that just means more opportunities for the rest of us. And we've got the talent, from top to bottom."
Ferentz can still call on a deep stable of capable tight ends, beginning with Hamilton. He mostly sat behind his close friend Fiedorowicz the past three seasons, yet Hamilton was a highly-ranked recruit himself with offers from several marquee programs coming out of Strongsville, Ohio. He has 11 catches for 130 yard in his career, but often he has been asked to come in as a blocking tight end.
"The coaches had a role for me every game, each year, and I came in to do my job, which was to raise hell every play I was in there," he said. "I did a lot of run blocking, which was all right because I love blocking. There's no better feeling than moving a grown man off the ball against his will. That's all that matters."
That role doesn't come with as much glory as, say, catching six touchdown passes, as Fiedorowicz did a year ago. But the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hamilton has performed his job well.
"Ray’s always been one of those underappreciated guys in some ways at times, even by us," Ferentz told reporters this spring. “He made a lot of clutch plays during the season. He makes them during practice. He’s a pretty good all-around tight end, in our opinion.
"We’re losing a pro guy, and when you lose a pro guy, it’s not fair to measure it ... to a guy who hasn’t played. The good news is, I think, that Ray has improved his game, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”
With Fiedorowicz gone, Hamilton could be looking at a starting role, along with more targets from quarterback Jake Rudock.
"I haven't really proven too many times that I can catch a pass and then do something with it," he said. "So I'm anxious to go out there and catch some balls, try and break some tackles and make some plays for this team."
He's not the only tight end capable of those things. Junior Jake Duzey is the leading returning pass-catcher in the group and had the memorable 85-yard touchdown reception at Ohio State last season. Sophomore George Kittle, Hamilton said, "may be even faster than Duzey," while junior Henry Krieger-Coble "has some of the best ball skills and hands you're going to find."
That depth gives Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis options. They used those to their advantage in the second half of last season while breaking out a three-tight end look, starting with the Ohio State game.
"That's a blast for us," Hamilton said. "There's no better feeling than having three guys from your own position group on the field at the same time and moving the ball down teams' throats."
Hamilton is embracing the leadership role with the group as its only senior. The tight end tradition at Iowa is one reason he chose to go there, and he's mindful of keeping that torch lit. Maybe he'll be the next guy to enter the spotlight. If not, he'll continue to play his role.
"I just love blocking, period," he said. "I love getting down and nasty with it. That's just the kind of player I am."
There will always be room on the Hawkeyes for a guy like that.
Follow us on Twitter and send us questions there.
Michael from New York writes: Regarding the Penn State/Georgia State camp; If the SEC relaxes their rules on this issue, do you foresee a series of tit-for-tat battles ensuing? For example, UG retaliates by scheduling something with East Stroudsburg U. in Pennsylvania. And to play this situation out, would small schools in Pennsylvania resist overtures such as the one above for fear of antagonizing big brother PSU?
Adam Rittenberg: I absolutely think the SEC coaches would start guest-coaching in other regions, and they should. Setting up something with James Franklin's alma mater would be a pretty bold move, but why should those small schools shy away from having these big-time coaches at their camps? Georgia State and Stetson welcomed Franklin and his staff, and I'd expect Northern schools to do the same if SEC coaches expressed interest.
Adam Rittenberg: Love the optimism, John! I print what I get and I don't hear nearly enough from Illinois fans. Illinois' defense should be better than last year, but the team undoubtedly will rely on the offense, which made major strides and retains some good pieces, namely a line featuring four returning starters.
I saw Lunt practice in Chicago and he has a big arm that should allow Illinois to stretch the field. How does Illinois get to 8-4? It starts by winning at home, as the schedule at Memorial Stadium is pretty manageable. Illinois' road slate -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is very tough.
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, it's hard to know for sure, but I think Michigan State would have been the fourth team in the playoff, behind Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. The Pac-12 had a stronger national perception than the Big Ten, and Stanford had a very good team, but the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Utah team and a USC squad that lingered on the fringes of the Top 25. The Big Ten might have been down, but Michigan State won all nine of its league contests by double digits. Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a game with some controversial calls. Bottom line: the Spartans deserved to make the playoff ahead of a two-loss Pac-12 champion.
Adam Rittenberg: Hackenberg is a good choice, although I worry about Penn State's protection issues with so little proven depth on the offensive line. I disagree with you about Iowa. The Hawkeyes' track record shows a ton of close games and quite a few come-from-behind wins late in those contests. The opportunities will be there for Jake Rudock to be the hero.
Adam Rittenberg: As ESPN2 play-by-play man Mark Jones said of Scott Starks' fumble return, "What a turnaround! A cataclysmic turn of events!" Unfortunately for Purdue, those words proved true as the program hasn't found that level of success again. There have been very good players in the program -- Ryan Kerrigan, Kawann Short, Anthony Spencer -- but the team has struggled to turn a corner and compete for league titles. Purdue is a tough job, and the fan apathy has made it tougher. What Joe Tiller did there is still pretty remarkable.
How can Purdue regain its footing? It starts with recruiting and finding certain pipelines, like the one Tiller had to Texas, and Darrell Hazell and his staff are working hard to do that. Purdue has a great quarterback tradition that must be maximized. The recent QB recruiting has been very strong. Another step is line play, especially on the offensive side. Purdue needs to get stronger, more athletic linemen to be able to do more with the offense.
These are drives in the fourth quarter or overtime that put the winning team ahead for good.
Only 10 other returning FBS signal-callers have directed more than one such drive. Navy's Keenan Reynolds, who faces Miller and Ohio State on Aug. 30 in the season opener, is second nationally with five.
Today's poll question asks: Other than Ohio State's Miller, which Big Ten quarterback will be best in leading game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season?
The candidates ...
C.J. Brown, Maryland: Brown is one of the more experienced returning quarterbacks in the league. He will have two of the league's best receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, at his disposal as both return from leg injuries. Maryland has depth at both receiver and running back, which helps when trying to orchestrate late-game drives. Plus, Brown boasts good mobility with 1,162 career rush yards and 17 touchdowns.
Connor Cook, Michigan State: The Spartans stifling defense allowed Cook to play from ahead most of last season, but he made plenty of big throws at key moments. Cook enjoys the spotlight -- he earned MVP honors at both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl -- and returns most of his receiving corps, led by senior Tony Lippett. He doesn't shy away from big moments and boasts better-than average mobility in the pocket.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Hackenberg showed against Michigan last season that he can deliver in pressure situations. Arguably no Big Ten quarterback has more natural passing ability, and Hackenberg should be even better with age. He needs help at receiver after Allen Robinson's departure, and Penn State's offensive line must hold up with likely only one returning starter (left tackle Donovan Smith).
Jake Rudock, Iowa: Like Hackenberg, Rudock showed what he could do in a big moment last year against Northwestern, firing the winning touchdown pass in overtime. He should benefit from a full offseason as the starter, and most likely a deeper and more explosive receiving corps. Rudock is smart, steady and not easy rattled. One potential drawback is Iowa likely will play gunslinger C.J. Beathard in certain situations.
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: Before Wednesday, there was a dilemma about whether Sudfeld or Tre Roberson would lead potential game-winning drives for the Hoosiers. But Roberson's somewhat surprising transfer clears the way for Sudfeld to take full command of the offense. Sudfeld has a big arm and operates in an offense that can score point in a hurry. Wide receiver/tight end is a bit of question mark for IU after the departures of Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser.
Anything written or said about Rudock notes that he's a brain. The Iowa junior quarterback is a microbiology/premed major and an academic All-American who, before making his Hawkeyes debut last fall, broke down his organic chemistry class for a group of reporters whose chosen profession had steered them as far away from classes like organic chemistry as possible. He mentioned stereoisomers and other head-spinning terms.
Most football players want nothing to do with team doctors. Rudock, who wants work in pediatric medicine, picks their brains and hopes to shadow some of them. It doesn't hurt that Iowa's Kinnick Stadium is located across the street from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, one of the nation's 50 largest public hospitals. Rudock wants to volunteer there in pediatrics this summer.
"He's a very bright guy who has taken classes that I certainly can't tutor for him," Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "I'm not sure anybody on our team or staff could tutor for him."
If Rudock excels on the field like he does in the chem lab, more tests could come for a Hawkeyes team with high expectations in 2014.
"He's a really intelligent guy," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a football-intelligent guy, too. Sometimes there's not always a correlation. In his case, he's good both ways."
Rudock's football wisdom should help as Iowa expands its offense in Davis' third season. Iowa averaged nearly five more plays per game in 2013 than it did in 2012, and Davis intends to further ramp up the tempo and broaden the playbook.
There's little Davis can throw Rudock's way that Rudock hasn't seen before. He operated from numerous formations as a quarterback for Florida prep powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
"We'd go three receivers wide," Rudock said. "Then we'd run the veer out of the gun, the option under center, zone schemes, lead schemes, pulling guards, pulling guard and tackle, all that stuff. We used a lot of different screens, all that good stuff."
Bryan Baucom, the offensive coordinator at St. Thomas Aquinas, adds a few more to the list: classic pro set, shotgun empty, Oklahoma-style wishbone.
"If it was invented," Baucom said, "we were running it."
Rudock ran it well, setting a host of records at St. Thomas Aquinas, including career touchdown passes (73), single-season passing yards (2,827), career completion percentage (64 percent) and, most important, career victories (31). Davis didn't recruit Rudock to Iowa but was impressed watching how his high school moved seamlessly from a spread formation to two backs to something else.
Iowa might not be known for multiplicity on offense, but things could be changing with Davis calling plays and Rudock calling signals.
"He's pretty comfortable with a bunch of different ways to play the game," Davis said.
Rudock's comfort level showed this spring after a season where he put up first-year starter numbers: 2,383 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 59-percent completions. He had highlights, like a game-winning touchdown strike to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime against Northwestern, but also plenty of mistakes.
Being good but not great might seem alien to a high achiever like Rudock. But he not only put in the work to improve, but embraced the grind.
"In the classroom, it all doesn't just come to me," he explained. "Just like in football, it all doesn't just come to you. You have to put the effort to watch that film, meet with coaches, try to further understand things and not just understand the first layer but the second and third tiers."
Baucom never remembers yelling at Rudock because the quarterback knew right away if he missed a read or a coverage. Rudock started practicing with the Aquinas varsity as a freshman after his junior-varsity season concluded. The strong-minded, skinny quarterback was a "great huddle guy," Baucom recalled, who teammates easily followed.
"He's a smart kid, down-to-earth kid, never too high, never too low," Baucom said.
How even-keeled is Rudock? Consider how he reacted to the news that Iowa first team All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff would return for his senior season even though he likely would have a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
"I remember finding out and being like, 'Well, that's good,'" Rudock said.
Well, that's good? No primal scream? No backflip?
"It was more a sigh of relief," Rudock said. "It makes you feel safer back there."
Rudock should feel fairly safe as Iowa's starter, but the coaches also see a role for C.J. Beathard, who appeared in five games last season and stood out in spring ball. Davis came away "extremely pleased" with Beathard this spring, noting his big arm and his lateral quickness.
Iowa historically has been a one-quarterback team, but Beathard could be used in a package of plays built around the zone read.
"I wouldn't rule it out," Ferentz said.
The competition shouldn't faze Rudock. Few things do.
"If you're not working, somebody else is," he said, "so it's important not to ever be satisfied with where you're at."
Rudock committed to Iowa in July before his senior year of high school, picking the Hawkeyes ahead of Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, among others. When Miami hired Al Golden that December, the new Hurricanes coach pursued Rudock, but the quarterback stayed firm with his pledge.
He hasn't looked back.
"He knows what he wants to do with his life," Baucom said. "He had a plan in place and he's following that plan. He wanted to go to one of the top medical schools, That’s why he picked Iowa. He wanted to play Division I football. He accomplished that."
It doesn't take a microbiology major to identify the next item in Rudock's plan -- a Big Ten championship.
Kenny from Cincy writes: Hey, Brian, it would be great to see every B1G teams' strength of schedule for this year (ranked from toughest to easiest). Thanks. Go Reds this weekend!
Brian Bennett: You mean the four-games-under-.500 Reds? They'd better start going sometime.
As far as strength-of-schedule ratings go, it's hard to calculate that in the preseason. The NCAA's way of determining that is simply to base it off opponents' records. If we did that, using 2013 records, the Big Ten strength-of-schedule ratings would look like this:
5. Ohio State
9. Michigan State
11. Penn State
Again, though, these are based on opponents' records from last season and don't really account for how good the teams might actually be in 2014. Still, you'd get little argument that Rutgers has an extremely difficult schedule, while Iowa and Wisconsin drew favorable slates. At least until we see the teams play this fall.
Chris V. from Grandview, Mo., writes: I saw ESPN just released the contenders for the college playoff this year. I also know you have the poll on Big Ten blog. My question to you, is who do you and Adam think will be the contenders from the Big Ten and nationally for the College Football Playoff this coming year? Do you guys seriously think a Big Ten team can make it all the way to title game and win it?
Brian Bennett: I'll stick mostly to the Big Ten side of things, though I suspect I'll end up ranking Florida State, Alabama and Oregon in the top three when it's time to do so. The most important thing for the Big Ten is just getting in the four-team field. Once you're in, of course, you've got a shot to win it. Getting there won't be easy, given the perception of the league vs. the SEC and even the Pac-12 and Big 12 and with Florida State giving the ACC a huge credibility boost last season.
Michigan State and Ohio State still look like the safest bets, and they both have marquee out-of-conference games (Spartans vs. Oregon, Buckeyes vs. Virginia Tech) that could help their cause. The big question is whether someone out of the Big Ten West, like Iowa, Nebraska or Wisconsin, can force its way into the conversation. The Hawkeyes and Huskers might need to run the table, while Wisconsin's weak schedule probably means the Badgers have to either beat LSU or play the Tigers extremely close in the opener.
I'm skeptical that any Big Ten team is truly national-title caliber in 2014. But it sure would be nice to see the league at least get into the field and have a chance.
Pat from Iowa writes: Let's say the Big Ten champion next year has two losses going into bowl season. Do you think they would still be selected into the new playoff system?
Brian Bennett: I'd say it's almost impossible, barring some wild chaos in the rest of the country. The perception of the Big Ten is too low right now, and probably only an SEC team, or one that plays an extremely difficult schedule, would even get serious contention for inclusion with two losses. Stanford last year would have had a compelling and fascinating argument as an 11-2 Pac-12 champion, but its nonconference schedule could have been an issue.
Aaron from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Jake Rudock, better or worse next year? He returns an outstanding line lead by Brandon Scherff and three other returning starters. There is a running back corps that is deep (fingers crossed, there's no AIRBHG this season) led by Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri. Receivers are plentiful and talented ([Kevonte] Martin-Manely, [Tevaun] Smith, [Jacob] Hillyer, [Damond] Powell, [Derrick] Willies (more high hopes), [Ray] Hamilton, and [Jake] Duzey). But then there is Rudock's numbers, 18-to-13 TD to INT, 59% completion. With your professional opinion, how do you think Rudock will fair and where Iowa will go with their favorable schedule?
Brian Bennett: Rudock's numbers were fairly mediocre last season. But remember that he was in his first year as a starter, and the Hawkeyes didn't have a lot of deep threats for most of the season. I thought he made pretty good decisions in many games, and an extra year of experience can only help his cause. There is legitimate optimism about the receiving corps for the first time in a few years, as Iowa looks to have more speed and playmaking ability on the outside. I don't know that Rudock will ever be a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown kind of quarterback in that system. But I see every reason to believe Rudock will continue to improve. If not, C.J. Beathard is waiting in the wings.
Greg M. from Bel Air, MD., writes: Big RU fan here ... so let me start with the saying "You live and die by the sword." I guess the B1G got what it wanted which was the NYC papers to notice Rutgers...unfortunately probably not the way they wanted...according to many of the B1G blogger sites. Rutgers is already the most hated University in the B1G (surpassing Ohio St/Penn St) and we haven't even played a game yet, but if we can become competitive on the field, pull the big upsets every now and then, ruin someone’s big payday, make the minor bowls, perhaps we can be the Alabama of the SEC, the USC of the Pac-12, the Miami Hurricanes of the ACC, the Notre Dame ... teams the fans love to hate because we can be both dangerous on the field and in the papers.
Brian Bennett: Um, OK. Let's back up on the Alabama/USC/Notre Dame comparisons. Rutgers simply needs to field a competitive team on the field and stop embarrassing itself off it. The Scarlet Knights have the resources to at least become a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten club that should be in the mix for bowl games. The fear from other Big Ten fans is that the program will dilute the overall product and cause nothing but negative headlines. Rutgers shouldn't aim to be hated but simply for now to be competent enough to blend in.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. In our second installment, we turn to the Iowa Hawkeyes:
Brandon Scherff, LT, Sr.
This one's pretty much a no-brainer. While the Hawkeyes have some nice depth on their offensive line and are one of the best in the business at developing offensive linemen, Scherff should enter the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten. He's integral to the entire Iowa offense in protecting quarterback Jake Rudock and paving room in the running game. We saw how the offense slowed to a halt after Scherff got injured late in the 2012 season. The Hawkeyes would likely be able to weather his absence better this season, but they sure don't want to find out what life is like this year without the potential 2015 NFL first-round pick.
Desmond King, CB, Soph.
Here's another case where a choice for most indispensable is probably not among the best two players on the team. If we were simply going that route, defensive tackle Carl Davis would likely appear here. But Iowa has built depth along the defensive line, while King -- who excelled as a freshman in 2013 -- is a guy the Hawkeyes really can't afford to lose right now. There are some major question marks elsewhere in the secondary after the graduation of B.J. Lowery. Three relatively unproven players -- Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin -- are battling it out for the other starting corner spot. Though King is just a sophomore, he's clearly a star in the making and one of the few anchors right now for the defensive backfield.
These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.
Next up, a bright spot at a position group suddenly flush with depth on the Iowa roster:
Spring breakout player: WR Derrick Willies
Midway through spring practice at Iowa last month, Willies announced his arrival with a big performance as the Hawkeyes caravanned to West Des Moines for a public scrimmage. Under-recruited out of Rock Island, Ill., the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman caught seven balls for 148 yards and a touchdown.
He did it largely against Iowa’s defensive reserves, though, so questions remained.
Was it indicative of his ability to help the Hawkeyes in 2014? Could he really challenge for meaningful playing time amid a talented corps of receivers that includes seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell in addition to junior Tevaun Smith?
Yes and yes.
Willies followed with an impressive showing on April 26 in Iowa’s spring game at Kinnick Stadium. He grabbed five passes for 142 yards, including a 42-yarder touchdown from backup quarterback C.J. Beathard.
Despite two receptions that covered more than 80 yards, a short route near the sideline was what impressed coach Kirk Ferentz the most. On that play, Willies dragged a foot before falling out of bounds.
“He’s this year’s spring sensation,” the coach told reporters after the spring game, “so we’ll have to keep him in check. But he had a great catch on our sideline, and he’s doing good things.”
His emergence should help the Hawkeyes field a receiving corps as deep as any coached by Ferentz, entering his 16th season in Iowa City. With Jake Rudock back at quarterback, the passing game looks set up for success.
A former high school hurdler and state-champion sprinter, Willies sat quietly before spring practice among classmates Matt VandeBerg, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris. Each looked to announce his arrival.
Consider Willies arrived.
“He’s a talented player,” Martin-Manley said after the spring game. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.”
To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.
Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.
Now, for the final seven picks ...
Pick No. 8: Penn State
The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker
Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.
Pick No. 9: Minnesota
Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.
Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.
Pick No. 10: Iowa
Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs
Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.
Pick No. 11: Nebraska
Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.
Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.
Pick No. 12: Wisconsin
Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett
Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.
Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook
The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.
Pick No. 13: Ohio State
Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.
Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson
I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.
Pick No. 14: Michigan State
Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock
OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell
You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.