Big Ten: Jim Delany
Ohio State’s amazing postseason run, capped off Monday with a 42-20 win over Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, shines light on the league in a way unimaginable amid the popular post-Thanksgiving sentiment that the Big Ten did not belong on this stage.
Make no mistake, Monday night was about the Buckeyes, but it helps the entire Big Ten, which suffered from a serious perception problem as recently as two weeks ago.
Now, an offseason of positive momentum awaits. Commissioner Jim Delany celebrated alongside OSU at the sight of his league revalidated by the very playoff that he long opposed. We’ll have plenty of time to soak up the irony of that situation.
First, let’s review a few key points from Monday, with the help of ESPN & Information:
The Ezekiel Elliott storyline threatens to rise above all others from the playoff -- Urban Meyer and Cardale Jones included. Elliott completed his incredible postseason with 246 yards, the third-most in a single game at Ohio State.
The way in which he gained those yards is equally impressive. Elliott rushed for 213 yards between the tackles, the third-most by a Power 5 back in a game this season. He averaged 7.1 yards on inside rushes, gained 10 yards or more seven times and scored all four of his touchdowns between the tackles.
The sophomore gained 171 yards before Oregon touched him. And on 11 of his 36 carries, first contact was made 5 yards or further past the line of scrimmage. He lost yardage on just one rushing attempt.
In the Big Ten title game and two playoff wins, Elliott rushed for 696 yards and gained 20 yards or more on seven carries, equal to his number of long runs in the first 12 games.
What happened to the physically-dominant group of Ducks who pounded Florida State on New Year’s Day? For all the talk about how Oregon found motivation from those who continued to doubt its toughness, the questions were warranted Monday.
Oregon rushed for 132 yards against Ohio State and converted 2 of 12 third downs, its worst rate of the past three years. The Buckeyes, by comparison, were 8 of 15 on third down, gaining 9.5 yards per third-down play.
Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota completed 3 of 10 third-down throws, with three passes dropped, for a third-down QBR of 1.4. His QBR on third down before Monday was 91.9, second in the FBS.
Even in the red zone, a measure of toughness, the Ducks failed. Before Monday, Ohio State opponents scored a touchdown on 73 percent of their red-zone opportunities, the third-highest rate nationally. Oregon, in the title game, was 1 of 4 with a pair of field goals.
Statistically speaking, Jones’ performance in these final three games was unlike anything that even freshman star J.T. Barrett provided for the Buckeyes this year.
You saw his physical running on display against the Ducks, but Jones hurt Oregon even more with his arm -- in particular on the deep pass. The third-year sophomore completed four throws of 20 yards or longer downfield, the most by an Oregon foe this year.
In Jones’ three starts, Ohio State gained 55 percent of its passing yards on his throws of 20 yards or more, compared to 25 percent in its first 12 games with Barrett largely at the helm.
Jones, in December and January, completed 54.5 percent of his deep balls for 414 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
So is he an NFL prospect?
More on the title game:
- Meyer, at age 50, rose from his own ashes to reach the top again and stake his claim as the college game's best coach.
- Sounds like Meyer might be getting a tattoo.
- The Buckeyes look like they're here to stay.
- Is this the start of an Ohio State dynasty?
- The Buckeyes' game plan came from another era.
- Post-game analysis from ESPN.com on the Buckeyes' youth, Meyer's expanding legacy, the offensive heroes, Barrett's perspective on the title and the spectacle of the first College Football Playoff.
- Losses to Oregon and Ohio State kept Michigan State in the conversation during the title game.
- The NCAA has entered talks to Penn State to again amend sanctions levied against the school.
- New Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis inherits a position rich in tradition.
- The task at hand for new Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.
- Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska won't benefit from the financial windfall for the Big Ten from Ohio State's playoff appearance.
- Former Wisconsin assistant Jay Norvell, ex-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Nebraska, appears positioned for a return to Madison.
- The benefit of playing in a bowl game, from the Purdue perspective.
- Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld is on the road to recovery.
But he didn't know if the Buckeyes had done enough late in the season to merit a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The selection committee came away convinced and handed Ohio State the fourth and final spot.
"We knew there were paper-thin differences between [Nos.] 3, 4, 5 and 6," Delany told ESPN.com on Sunday afternoon. "We were hopeful but we weren't confident. We were happy and I'm sure if we wouldn't have been selected, we would have been disappointed.
"Ohio State got better throughout the year."
So did the Big Ten. No one considers the league among the nation's best, but the overall perception has improved a bit from the doom and gloom that existed after Week 2.
Many pronounced the Big Ten's playoff chances dead after Sept. 6 losses to Oregon (Michigan State), Notre Dame (Michigan) and, most shockingly, Virginia Tech (Ohio State).
"Sept. 7 is not Dec. 7," Delany said. "A lot of people had the field selected on Sept. 7. The committee said the whole body of work. I listened to that. The committee said championships mattered and strength of schedule mattered. I listened to that. They said comparative scores mattered, injury scenarios mattered. I listened to the committee on everything."
The Big 12's listening skills might not be as strong. The league's vagueness around its champion and the unwillingness of certain schools, namely Baylor, to beef up non-league scheduling proved costly on selection day.
Delany noted that while Ohio State's non-league schedule wasn't murder's row, the Buckeyes played multiple top 100 teams. And even though Michigan State and Wisconsin lost to Oregon and LSU, playing those games helped both teams develop and helped the Big Ten's overall schedule strength.
"I believe in strong scheduling; not everyone does," Delany said. "You try to play your best schedule and get better as the year goes along. You don't underline games but you do underline games. Sometimes you can win by losing because you're making an effort and your team gets better. You get better by playing better people. But people have different philosophies and different goals.
"We've always tried to play up. That's what the fans want, what the players want, what the decision-makers want."
Delany declined to gauge the importance of Ohio State's performance in the playoff, only saying, "It's a great opportunity, it's a big stage." He noted that while having a league title game helped the Big Ten this year, it can "cut both ways," as Ohio State would have been in the BCS title game last year before facing -- and eventually losing to -- Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.
The commissioner is pleased all eligible Big Ten teams are headed to bowls, noting that several squads were in jeopardy of being left out if Michigan State had gone to the Orange Bowl rather than the Cotton Bowl.
The Big Ten completed its first year of a new bowl selection process, designed to avoid repeat matchups and create more appealing games.
"There's a lot of freshness to it," Delany said, "partially because of new teams, partially because of new venues, partially because we moved teams around a little bit."
It's Friday. You made it! Let's celebrate by dipping into the mailbag one more time before game day.David from Chicago writes: The other day I wrote in and asked if it was too early to put J.T. Barrett in the Heisman talk, but then I looked at his comparison stats and it shows he should be ... If he wins or gets invited to NYC for the Heisman can Meyer bench him next year for Miller?
Dan Murphy: Thanks for your persistence, David. With Todd Gurley seemingly out of the picture, I think your new frontrunner is Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who has thrown for 1,232 yards and 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Barrett's numbers at Ohio State (1,354 yards, 17 TDs and five interceptions) stack up well with Prescott's. The one thing he's missing at this point is his "Heisman moment," which would probably have to come in a win over Michigan State for him to get serious consideration.
Meyer already said he's going back to Braxton Miller when he's healthy next season. That will be a tricky situation if the Buckeyes keep winning with Barrett, although it's a problem any coach would love to have. Miller has only one more year before he turns pro, so transferring wouldn't get Barrett on the field any faster than waiting behind Miller for a season.
Brian from Chicago writes: I love that the Big 10 is guaranteeing scholarships over 4 years. Why is this not gaining bigger press around the landscape of the NCAA and do you think the other power conferences will soon follow suit? Dan Murphy: The multi-year scholarship story has been a slow burn. The NCAA started giving schools the option to offer more than a year at a time in 2012 when its hand was forced by antitrust laws. It's not totally clear how many schools jumped on board immediately. This week's announcement from commissioner Jim Delany guaranteed every Big Ten player's scholarship for as long as they are eligible to play, a significant step. It also guaranteed players who leave school for a professional career or other legitimate reasons can finish their degree on scholarship at a later time. It's a smart move for a conference that is searching for ways to keep up with its southern brethren in recruiting. I don't think it will be long before other leagues around the country follow suit.
@DanMurphyESPN What B1G gains the most by winning out in regular season? I think NU (wins over Minny, Neb, Iowa, Notre Dame).- TrickOrTreaTJ (@Cyan220) October 10, 2014
Dan Murphy: Any team that can go unbeaten in the second half of the year will be in line to help themselves greatly. Brady Hoke and Tim Beckman could save their jobs. Ohio State and Michigan State could get invites to the playoffs. Northwestern could knock off some impressive opponents and show things are headed in the right direction again. But of every school in the Big Ten, I think Minnesota could take the best perception leap if they continue to roll this season. The Gophers' only loss this year is to an undefeated TCU team that just upset Oklahoma. A strong second half of the year could elevate that program to a new level. Other than the Buckeyes and Spartans, the odds that any Big Ten team finishes the rest of its schedule unblemished are slim.
Dan Murphy: The current problem starts at quarterback. C.J. Beathard and Jake Rudock will split time for the Hawkeyes this weekend because neither has proven to be a reliable option at this point. If you want to take a bigger picture approach, though, it's hard to attract top-level talent on offense when your playbook looks like it was borrowed from the 1980s. Blue-chip prospects want to play in fast offenses that can post gaudy numbers. If Iowa wants to improve its talent on that side of the ball, philosophical changes are in order.
@DanMurphyESPN What's the root cause of Iowa's offensive woes? Coaching/admin, personnel, something else? What changes do they need to make?- Hunter Sharpless (@HunterSharpless) October 10, 2014
When the Big Ten suffers through a Saturday like this past one, it's only natural to extrapolate about the state of the league. Because this isn't just an isolated incident.
Mama clearly was talking about the Big Ten when she said there'd be days like this.
Remember Week 2 in 2012, when the league went 6-6 and 1-6 against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame? Saturday felt like a flashback. While the league's Week 2 record this season was better (8-5), it ended on a stinkier note with three double-digit losses in national showcase prime-time games. No one can forget New Year's Day in 2011, when the Big Ten played a record five bowl games and lost them all.
When is the last time the Big Ten actually had a great day? Midway through the Michigan State-Oregon game, a colleague in Eugene, thinking about possible story angles, asked about the Big Ten's biggest wins since 2007. The two Rose Bowl wins (Ohio State in 2010, Michigan State in 2014) jumped out along with Iowa's Orange Bowl win, Michigan's Sugar Bowl win and Ohio State's since-vacated Sugar Bowl win. But I had a hard time identifying a truly significant regular-season nonconference victory, one that resonated nationally. The colleague ended up writing about Oregon.
There's a pattern here. Anyone who thinks it's just ESPN spin or a cyclical low point is in denial. Saturday was a bad day, but it's part of a bad decade. There's no other way to present it.
"I look at the big picture, in part," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told me Sunday. "I recognize we haven't won a championship since '02. I look at it in that way. I see the narrative, and if we had two or three [big games], we'd be feeling better.
"We're not feeling very good, but the facts are the facts."
Some Big Ten fans attach the league's shortcomings to Delany, which I don't understand. They say he chases the money more than trying to improve the football product. How do record revenues and unprecedented TV exposure hurt football? It doesn't unless schools fail to use those resources correctly. You might not like Maryland and Rutgers, but Big Ten teams should like the recruiting areas surrounding their campuses.
Then again, perhaps that's not Delany's role.
"I do what I can do, which is do my job," Delany said. "Each athletic director does his or hers, and each coach does his. We talk a little bit about what's a good TV approach, what’s a good bowl approach. People develop stadiums. They recruit based on academic standards and where they believe they’re strong.
"I'm comfortable with how we're doing it. I would just like to have more success. I don't have a magic wand or a special idea."
Mike Slive is a very good commissioner, but he's not the driving force behind the SEC's football success. The schools are. He doesn't tell SEC programs how to coach, recruit or invest. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is a dynamic, innovative thinker, but he's a former pro tennis player. He's not telling Mark Helfrich and David Shaw how to run their programs.
"You talk about bowls and you talk about schedules and playing good opponents, but it’s really not about building a football team," Delany said. "That's done locally. The conference provides certain structure for discussion, not whether you're in the spread [offense] or you're recruiting Florida or California. We don't do that in any of our sports.
"I doubt very much whether Alabama and Florida talk about it, or UCLA and Stanford. These institutions are naturally competitive, and how they build their programs is naturally competitive."
I get that, but it might be time that Big Ten schools acknowledge their collective problem -- always the first step -- and try to find collective solutions, especially in recruiting. Coaches have diverse backgrounds and observe the national landscape. Some Big Ten programs will be developmental in nature, but it doesn't mean recruiting strategies can't change a little. Would a group discussion about where you recruit, whom you recruit, certain positions and, gasp, academic standards be so bad?
I've always admired the Big Ten's approach to revenue sharing. The idea is to get all ships to rise. Perhaps it's time to extend that philosophy to football. Because days like Saturday drag down the entire league and devalue the league race, which could hurt come playoff selection time.
Delany might lack a magic wand, but if the Big Ten comes together and brainstorms how to fix football, its tired act on the field could start to change.
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.
Jim Delany feels your pain.
"I'm the No. 1 fan of the Big Ten so I look at it more like a fan looks at it," the league commissioner told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I don't get over it immediately. I give myself a day to think about it.
"But I have to go to work Monday morning."
Big Ten teams also are back at work after an extremely rough Saturday on the field. The league suffered double-digit losses in all three of its national prime-time showcase games: Michigan State-Oregon, Michigan-Notre Dame and Virginia Tech-Ohio State. Michigan was shut out for the first time since 1984, an NCAA-record stretch of 365 games. The rough night ended a day that began with Nebraska needing a last-minute touchdown to top FCS McNeese State, and both Northwestern and Purdue losing to Mid-American Conference opponents (Northern Illinois and Central Michigan, respectively). Iowa also needed a furious rally to outlast another MAC team, Ball State, at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday marked the first time since Sept. 17, 1988, that Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan all lost on the same day.
"I said at the time I thought they would be disproportionally impactful," Delany said of the three games. "I'm not changing that. Big games matter on big stages with big ratings and a lot of attention. In the three primetime games, we didn't win any. That's disappointing.
"I would say this: I said they would be disproportionally impactful but I didn't say they would be dispositive."
Dispositive, for those who don't know (I didn't), is defined as: relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue. Delany's point: it looks bad now, but the season is far from over, and the door to the College Football Playoff hasn't been closed.
"We’re not feeling very good but the facts are the facts," said Delany, who attended the Michigan-Notre Dame game in South Bend while monitoring the Michigan State and Ohio State contests. "I would just say with 50 percent of the nonconference games and 100 percent of conference games remaining, it's premature to make any judgments.
"It's September 7, not December 7. I would hate to think after two weeks we'd pick any teams for anything."
The day reminded many of Week 2 in 2012 or New Year's Day in 2011, where the Big Ten went 0-5 in bowls, including the Rose Bowl. Delany understands "the big picture" -- no national titles since 2002, repeated flops on the national stage in recent years -- but he's not going to make and predictions or conclusions about this season.
He thinks the playoff selection committee will do the same and evaluate a team's entire body of work. He pointed to Auburn, last year's national runner-up, and Michigan State, last year's Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion, as teams that weren't being discussed at all so early in the season.
"There's probably 40 teams on people's radar screens now and we'll end up with four," he said. "Why would they wait six weeks to put a poll out? Why would they meet every week? Why would they say, 'Let's disregard the [outside] polls?' They don't have many data points to begin with, so they're going to look at all the data points. I have full confidence. I believe in the system.
"You don't play your way into contention after two weeks. You play your way into contention after 13 weeks."
Some will say the Big Ten already has played itself out of contention. There are few showcase nonleague opportunities left and, because of the Week 2 results, conference victories might lose national significance.
But Delany is right: A lot of the season remains and, with it, plenty of playoff plot twists.
"You want to make sure the narrative and the facts are aligned at the end," he said. "It's too early for any narrative for the narrative to be fully developed. We had some opportunities we didn't cash in on. I realize that they're disproportionally impactful but they're not dispositive. If they were, we’d cut the line here.
"We'll get back to work and get better and see what the full narrative looks like on December 7."
Right now, that's all the Big Ten can do.
"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:
- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon says he had a misunderstanding with the coaches about his injured hip. The Badgers will regain two starting defensive linemen at some point this season.
- Nebraska DE Randy Gregory (knee) likely will remain out this week, giving Jack Gangwish another opportunity.
- Purdue will be without linebacker Jimmy Herman (thumb) for two weeks.
- Northwestern must already be in must-win territory against Northern Illinois.
- Plenty of good Iowa nuggets after the opener from Marc Morehouse.
- Illinois coach Tim Beckman looks for a faster start on offense in Week 2.
- Minnesota TE Drew Goodger brings toughness to the offense.
- Doug Lesmerises weighs whether Virginia Tech will provide a true gauge for Ohio State. Meyer challenges the Buckeyes' offensive line to improve.
- Devin Gardner thinks another Devin [Funchess] could be the best wide receiver to ever play at Michigan.
- The injury bug keeps biting Maryland, which loses WR Taivon Jacobs (knee) for the season.
- Dantonio wants more production from Michigan State's run attack.
- After a somewhat surprising opening win, Rutgers could end up starting 5-0, Steve Politi writes.
- Akron coach Terry Bowden has plenty of praise for Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg.
Michigan State hopes to go all NES on its opponent Saturday ...
"It's what I would describe as a fresh start," Delany told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "It's going to be what happens on the field, what happens as the [playoff selection] committee evaluates teams.
"It's much more of a new day than an old day in a sense that the old polls, the old computers are things people can look at, but the tendency is going to be for the committee to look at things in a new way, in a novel way."
If the committee members let recent performance or conference perception enter their minds, the Big Ten will be in trouble. Big Ten fans hate hearing this, but when a league hasn't won a national championship since 2002 and just two Rose Bowls since 2000, its reputation takes a beating.
The playoff decision, if done right, will be about what happens from Thursday night until Selection Sunday on Dec. 7. According to college football playoff executive director Bill Hancock, committee members have been told to "discredit" potential influences like the preseason polls. Hallelujah.
"There's somewhat of a clean slate," Delany said.
It gives the Big Ten the perfect opportunity to change the narrative, beginning with this week's games. No conference needs a stronger start than the Big Ten, which not only has chances to compete with the elite (Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU) but several other games (Virginia Tech-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska, Iowa-Pitt, Utah-Michigan) where it must hold serve.
The goal for the Big Ten is to perform well enough that conference games become résumé-boosters for the playoff rather than overlooked contests in an also-ran league. How many SEC teams have played weak or so-so nonleague schedules but received enough credit for their league wins to make the national title game? That's a luxury the Big Ten wants, and one that must be earned in the coming weeks.
Take the Ohio State-Michigan State game, for example. A Buckeyes win that night means a lot more if it comes against an MSU team that stunned Oregon in Eugene. A Spartans win carries more weight if it comes against an undefeated Ohio State squad that is handling Braxton Miller's absence well. If both teams struggle in nonleague play, the game likely falls off the national radar.
Unfortunately, the Big Ten lacks many premier division crossover games this season. Top West Division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. Nebraska, another threat in the West, only plays Michigan State. It's why the Big Ten needs surprise teams to rise up early in the season. Then there will be more league games the committee must monitor.
Michigan beating Notre Dame and Utah could help, especially if those teams go on to good seasons. The same holds true for Penn State beating UCF, Minnesota beating TCU, Maryland handling West Virginia and Syracuse, and Rutgers and Illinois winning in Seattle (against Washington State and Washington, respectively). It's all connected.
"You only have four nonconference games, and a lot of them are against opponents you're not going to get any credit [for beating]," Delany said. "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you. If you don't, they're going to look at those who do do well. It's important."
One early game that will get much more attention than it would have weeks ago is Saturday's meeting between Ohio State and Navy. Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will make his collegiate debut, filling Miller's massive shoes.
The Miller injury sparked the standard gloom-and-doom about Ohio State's season outlook, but it also spilled over to the Big Ten. If Ohio State couldn't make the playoff, many concurred, the Big Ten was toast, too.
To that, Delany passes out SPF 15 and Ray-Bans.
"Braxton's a great player, a Heisman Trophy hopeful," he said. "Big loss for Ohio State, but to equate it to a conference is probably 'the sky is falling' -- not a lot of perspective. I can't spin it that it doesn't have an effect on Ohio State and some effect on the Big Ten, but college sports is replete with young players doing really well, whether it's [Johnny] Manziel or Jameis Winston. It's also replete with people stepping up, teams adjusting. That's the essence of sports.
"There's no assurance that if you have your team intact, you're going to win all your games. There's no assurance if you lose a player, you can't win all your games."
The possibilities are out there for the Big Ten, but to keep the dark clouds away, the league needs a strong opening statement.
I'm not a doctor and know Ohio State didn't take Miller's situation lightly, but the whole thing seemed odd. He initially hurt the shoulder in the Orange Bowl but didn't have surgery until late February, as Ohio State hoped the injury would heal on its own. Ohio State called the surgery "minor" and said Miller would be limited in spring practice. He sat out the whole session.
He started throwing in early July and was making good progress. But when camp began, he threw on a limited basis and sat out scrimmages to rest the shoulder. Monday morning, offensive coordinator Tom Herman acknowledged Miller "had a little bit of a setback with some additional soreness that we weren't expecting." Miller, not surprisingly, declared himself 100 percent. But later that day, on a seemingly benign rollout pass, he reinjured the joint. Season over.
Some, like colleague Austin Ward, are calling it a fluke. But it's not as if there wasn't concern before he was re-injured. Miller already had been experiencing considerable soreness.
From Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises:
The Buckeyes will move forward. On the outside, there may be some dwelling though, especially since Miller was calling himself "100 percent" hours before Monday afternoon's practice even though he hadn't been allowed to really let it go on consecutive days in practice.
"Oh, I second-guess everything," Meyer said about what could have been done differently since February.
"When I say second-guess, I just ask the questions, because I'm not a doctor," Meyer said. "And I don't know. But I've been around long enough, things happen and it's unfortunate.
"I have great trust in our medical stuff, but sure, will you second-guess? I wouldn't say second-guess, just make sure in the evaluation we're doing the best we can."
So the Buckeyes tried to limit Miller in the last few weeks. And then it went wrong.
Maybe Miller should have been completely shut down. Maybe the re-injury was just bad luck. Either way, it will be interesting to see how Ohio State handles Miller this time around.
Taking a spin around the league ...
- Being named Illinois' starting quarterback was a "dream come true" for Wes Lunt.
- According to Vince Biegel, Wisconsin's banged-up linebackers will be good to go for the LSU game.
- D.J. Foster's transition to defensive tackle is going smoothly so far for Nebraska. In case you missed it, Bo knows fun.
- An excellent piece on Cedric Thompson's path to becoming a leader for Minnesota's defense.
- Iowa CB Jordan Lomax responds well to losing his starting job last season.
- Purdue's kicking competition is far from over, while Northwestern's kick game looks a bit shaky.
- A DUI arrest in April led to Macgarrett Kings' spring suspension at Michigan State, but the wideout appears to have avoided playing-time penalties.
- Pete Thamel is there as Ohio State begins life A.B. (After Braxton).
- Michigan's starting offensive line is finally taking shape. The Wolverines have a two-man race at running back.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wants to see more from top quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Penn State's Week 1 trip to Ireland presents some unique challenges. James Franklin expects "a handful" of Lions freshmen to play right away.
- We're a week away from football, and Rutgers has started its preparation for the opener against Washington State
- Michael Dunn has had quite a journey to possibly starting for Maryland at left tackle this fall.
- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany takes on the Ice Bucket Challenge. Well done!
If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.
Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.
"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"
Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.
Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.
"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."
The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.
"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."
The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.
"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."
Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.
"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."
There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.
"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."
The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.
"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."
CHICAGO -- Big Ten media days are in the books and the countdown to the 2014 season can officially begin. It was a mostly uneventful session at the Hilton Chicago, despite the presence of stars such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun.
Our Big Ten reporting crew weighs in on some of the topics from the past two days.
What was the biggest surprise at Big Ten media days?
Austin Ward: The lack of major headlines coming from the league was a bit of a shock considering some of the star power in Chicago, the storylines around college football right now and the amount of trash talk between leagues that has popped up this month. Not even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer or Penn State coach James Franklin were able to stir the pot much nationally, and typically they are always good for a viral sound bite or hot topic in late July. There's nothing wrong with avoiding controversy, but the Big Ten didn't do much to draw attention to itself over two days.
Mitch Sherman: Other than the bright-red pants worn by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on Tuesday to go with his dark jacket and tie, I was surprised most by the lack of bravado we saw out of Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a blue-collar bunch and that this spot atop the Big Ten is new to them. But after a 13-1 season and set to play arguably the most significant nonconference game nationally on Sept. 6 at Oregon, I thought Michigan State would come to Chicago with a little more swagger. If coach Mark Dantonio hadn't worn his giant championship ring, I’m not sure I would have remembered that MSU beat Ohio State in December, then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This is not to suggest it's a bad thing; simply that the Spartans -- even flamboyant defensive end Shilique Calhoun -- are not resting on their accomplishments of 2013.
Josh Moyer: OK, let's say you pulled aside the top three offensive players in the Big Ten -- Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and asked them, in separate interviews, about the most exciting offensive player in the conference. Who do you think they would say? Well, their answer was my biggest surprise this week; they all said the same guy -- Indiana wideout Shane Wynn. Maybe they just wanted to put the spotlight on an underrated player, but it was still a shock to hear Wynn's name so often. Heck, I told Wynn about that -- and even he was surprised. It's fun to watch a short guy like Wynn, who is 5-foot-7, run circles around defenders. So while I thought Wynn would be in for a good season, I can't say I would've mentioned him in the same breath as those three.
Who had the most memorable interview?
Moyer: I have to go with Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert. He's the fastest player in the Big Ten, and he might just be the most charismatic. You couldn't blame Purdue if it came out a little quiet at this media day after the season the Boilermakers had, but Mostert didn't shy away from making some bold statements. He said his offense was capable of scoring 30-some points a game and, while I still think there’s zero chance of that happening, it takes some guts to make that statement. Plus, he was hilarious in talking about how far along Danny Etling’s come. He couldn't say enough good things about Etling now, but said last season he looked like a guy who just lost his dog every time he threw a pick. So my "Most Optimistic" and "Most Well-Spoken" awards go to Mostert.
Sherman: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was on fire Tuesday during the group session. Fitzgerald, always an eloquent speaker, had plenty to get off his chest in the wake of an offseason like no other in Evanston, Illinois. He waxed on about problems with the current model of college athletics, in particular criticizing some of the outdated rules that govern recruiting. "I don't want to be basketball," Fitzgerald said in the midst of his monologue. "We're going there." He harped on the disingenuous ways that some college coaches try to attract prospects. All of this after his players voted recently on whether to unionize. The issues of unionization and inequity within the sport are inseparable. Still, Fitzgerald managed keep his own players and former players largely out of the discussion. And the coach made a lot of sense.
Rittenberg: Well, my favorite moment was Michigan State's Connor Cook, midway through an answer Tuesday about how Dantonio had loosened up over time, stared blankly and said, "Sorry, my brain, I just blacked out right there." Must have been a fun Monday night in Chicago. ... I really enjoy Franklin's energy, especially in a league of mostly decaffeinated coaches. Franklin on Tuesday excitedly recalled the night the Penn State staff watched assistant Herb Hand appear on "Chopped" while riding a bus between their guest-coaching camp stops in the South. "It was awesome, we were driving and Herb comes walking out [on the show] and the whole bus explodes: 'Herbie! Herbie!'" Franklin said, clapping his hands. "The other guys come out and the whole bus is booing them, 'Boo! Boo!' So Herbie wins the first round and the bus goes crazy, 'That's our boy!' He loses the next round and that bus turned on him in an instant. Everybody's bashing him. His flavors were good but the presentation was awful." Again, something different and refreshing.
Ward: Calhoun had little interest in a standard question-and-answer interview, instead turning his podium session on Monday into an interactive experience that livened up the event while the Michigan State star was in the spotlight. He spent his 30 minutes joking, laughing and telling reporters how much he enjoyed watching them talk over each other to ask questions and then yelling across the room at Cook to clarify comments the quarterback had supposedly made about him earlier. In one brief session, Calhoun made the kind of memorable impact on the media he’s been known to make on opposing quarterbacks.
What's one new thing you learned?
Rittenberg: Big Ten teams aren't shying away from the playoff talk. Players, coaches and the commissioner all acknowledged that if you don't make the playoff, you're basically irrelevant in college football. And that's the right position for this league to take. The perception is that Big Ten players and coaches only care about the Rose Bowl and don't aim higher. Perhaps some of that is true, but most of the folks I encountered this week seemed to embrace the significance of the new system. I loved what Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said: Anything short of a national title would be disappointing. That's how the Big Ten needs to think.
Moyer: Nebraska's Kenny Bell has a killer Afro? Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond has great fashion sense? Penn State's Sam Ficken will never escape questions about the 2012 Virginia game? There were certainly a lot of tidbits. But I was impressed with how even-keeled Maryland coach Randy Edsall was. At one point, during podium interviews, an irate cameraman kept yelling at reporters to move out of his shot. It went on for a few minutes, but Edsall never paused or broke from his calm demeanor. Other coaches might have yelled for some quiet; Edsall just pretended like nothing was wrong. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
Ward: The Spartans have some really nice bling. Both Cook and Dantonio flashed their championship rings on Monday, and the huge, sparkling accessories were hard to miss. At one point Cook took his off to allow the media a closer look at the prize he helped earn with breakout passing outings against Ohio State in the conference title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but he might have really just needed a break from lugging around the heavy jewelry on his hand.
Sherman: Even in the age of the College Football Playoff, with more potential for sweeping change in the sport, old habits die hard in the Big Ten. From Michigan coach Brady Hoke's lamenting about the elimination of tradition at the Rose Bowl when Pasadena serves as a semifinal site to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz preaching the values of old-school football, the more things change nationally, the more they stay the same in the Big Ten. This is comforting and disturbing all at once. I heard Nebraska's Bell speak of unity among the league and Ohio State's Miller project confidence that the Buckeyes can make another run at a perfect season. But the league needs a larger dose of more progressive thinking.
CHICAGO -- Unlike some of his counterparts from other leagues -- and unlike some of his own previous years here -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't seem interested in making major headlines during his address to close out media day.
Then again, Delany's views on NCAA reform and other pressing topics are well-known and well-documented. He spoke at length on the subject last year at this time in Chicago, and all 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors signed a letter endorsing student-athlete welfare upgrades just last month.
So Delany didn't need to bang the gavel this year. Instead, his comments were more subdued. But the commish's words always carry weight, so here's a recap of his 25-minute address at the Chicago Hilton:
- Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby ripped NCAA enforcement at his league's media days last week, calling the system "broken" and saying "cheating pays" these days. Delany said he wouldn't echo Bowlsby's "more colorful" language, instead simply terming the enforcement branch as "overmatched." Delany did say the power conferences need to come together to bring about a new way of policing themselves. "We need a system that works," Delany said. "I think there's no doubt that NCAA enforcement has struggled. ... My hope is over the next year to 18 months that major conferences can come together and can find ways and processes and procedures that fit with what we’re trying to achieve, which is a level of deterrence, a level of compliance and a level of punishment.”
- Along those lines, the NCAA Division I board is scheduled to vote Aug. 7 on new autonomy measures that will give the Power Five conferences the right to craft many of their own rules. Delany said he's confident that autonomy will pass and would be "very surprised" if it doesn't. But he didn't issue any threats about power leagues forming their own division, as SEC commissioner Mike Slive did earlier this month. “If it doesn’t [pass], I don’t really know what we’d do,” Delany said. “I expect there would probably be conversations within each conference, we’d huddle up, and then see where we're at.”[+] EnlargeJerry Lai.USA TODAY SportsBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany characterized the NCAA's enforcement branch as "overmatched."
- Delany reiterated that the Big Ten scheduling model going forward will include nine conference games, one nonconference game against a power league opponent, and no games against FCS teams. Delany acknowledged that some high-level FCS teams are more competitive than low-level FBS squads and that it often costs less to schedule games against the FCS. But Delany said he's worried less about the budget and more about making sure his conference has the strength-of-schedule ratings needed to catch the eye of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
- Delany testified in the Ed O'Bannon trial and saw one of his own league teams -- Northwestern -- vote on forming a union. So he's well-versed on all the various fronts challenging to tear down the NCAA model. The commissioner said he's not sure where this is headed, but he and the Big Ten remain committed to making sure education plays a pivotal role in college sports. “I certainly hope when the dust settles there will be a wide array of education and athletics opportunities for many men and women,” he said. “I hope at the end of the day the courts will support us in achieving them. College sports is a great American tradition. It’s not a perfect enterprise. No perfect enterprise exists. We can improve it, and we should.”
- Jim Delany will make news. The Big Ten commissioner almost certainly will not follow the lead of his Big 12 counterpart, Bob Bowlsby, who this week slammed the enforcement arm of the NCAA, saying it pays to cheat in college athletics. But Delany will address tough questions about the game in an up-front manner. He'll discuss the potential ramifications of the upcoming vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to grant autonomy to the five major conferences and the upcoming verdict in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Both events could alter the landscape of college football, which makes the opinion of Delany -- one of the game's top power brokers -- of high interest.
- An awkward moment or two for the Northwestern players. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats chose to send a trio of seniors to this event. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian are smart guys. They'll be well equipped to answer questions about an offseason like no other at their school, highlighted by a late-April vote of players on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. Still, facing a large media throng, the players will get peppered with questions about the situation and the possibility that its fallout may linger as a distraction at their school for some time.
- Randy Edsall will end his war of words with the ACC. Highly doubtful that the Maryland coach chooses to fire back at Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who defended the ACC after Edsall said he was pleased to make the jump to coach in a “football conference.” Edsall, speaking at lunch event in Baltimore on July 14, said he was “not in a basketball conference anymore.” In response, Swinney, at ACC Media Days, referenced the Tigers win over Ohio State to end last season in the Orange Bowl. “Aren't they in that conference?” Swinney said. There's not much more to say here, especially for a coach who went 13-24 in three seasons in the ACC. Oh, and who said the Big Ten's not a basketball league?
- Connor Cook will charm the media. Michigan State's junior quarterback is known as a blue-collar guy, in step with Spartan style, who did just enough last season not to spoil the 13-1 MSU season capped with wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Cook is more than that. And the writers and broadcasters in Chicago may be in for a surprise to meet this quarterback now brimming with confidence as a result of his strong finish to 2013 and a productive offseason. I met Cook recently during the Elite 11 finals, at which he counseled the nation's top prep quarterbacks, and came away impressed with his poise and confidence.
- Brandon Scherff will get asked to lift something heavy. And politely decline. What else can you expect in the wake of this recent video? Scherff possesses freakish strength. He would likely win a strongest-man competition among all Big Ten players. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis compared Scherff's dominance to former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Davis encountered while coaching at Texas in 2009. A likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Scherff provides a great luxury for the Hawkeyes at left tackle. And if anyone needs help with a suitcase in Chicago, he's your man.
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. And for good measure, Central Florida 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 hot-shot 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 Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. 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 Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
For the most part, Midwesterners are excessively nice and hospitable. Coastal arrogance or aloofness has no place in the heartland, and the only frostiness in these parts is the weather. Big Ten fans might not have done backflips when they found out Rutgers and Maryland were joining the league, but now that the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins are part of the league, they will embrace their new, well-located friends.
But there are certain individuals that rankle even the most sensible Midwesterners. They are the folks you love to boo. Sadly, some of our favorite Big Ten villains -- Bret Bielema, Terrelle Pryor, Taylor Lewan -- are no longer here to kick around, but others remain.
Some of these folks have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have been too good on the field or on the sideline or as high school recruits. Others have said or done things to stir the pot.
To those on this list, an important point: the only true villains in college football are good enough to be villains. No one cares what the last-place coach or quarterback thinks. So you have earned this distinction. Put it right next to your playing or coaching awards.
Another reminder: this is all in good fun.
Without further ado, the list in alphabetical (not villainous) order:
Jim Delany, commissioner, Big Ten: He is one of the most powerful figures in college sports and has built the Big Ten into a revenue superpower through initiatives like the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten will never have a commissioner who makes a greater impact for such a long period of time. But Delany is still known more for his pro-BCS stance, Legends and Leaders, and the eyebrow-raising additions of Rutgers and Maryland. He lacks Larry Scott's polish or Mike Slive's willingness to stump for his constituents no matter what. Delany is a true independent voice and, at times, it has hurt his image among Big Ten fans. He might not be truly appreciated until he's gone.
James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Remember when Penn State's offseasons used to be quiet? Franklin has generated noise -- joyful noise for Nittany Nation, not so much for other fan bases -- since his opening news conference in January. He has made bold statements about dominating regional recruiting and backed it up so far, compiling a top-5 class for 2015. Franklin soaked up the spotlight during his May tour around the state and appears to be in front of every microphone and camera. Recruits and many fans love the guy, but some question his authenticity and get tired of the incessant hype.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: He is about as subdued a superstar as we have seen in the Big Ten and a welcome departure from his predecessor, Pryor. But the introverted Miller has inflicted quite a bit of damage on Big Ten fan bases, leading Ohio State to a 16-0 mark in regular-season league games the past two seasons as the starter. Miller has been the king of comebacks during his Buckeyes career, leading six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most among any FBS player. Knock him if you'd like for lack of a Big Ten title, but his best could be still to come.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State: He is the overlord of the Big Ten's best defense and one of the nation's most dominant units. Michigan State and Alabama are the only FBS teams to rank among the top 11 nationally in the four major defensive categories in each of the past three seasons. Narduzzi's incessant blitzes punish quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Just ask Michigan. The Spartans have a good thing going and Narduzzi knows it, telling ESPN.com, "I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do. ... We've been ahead of the curve for years."
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: How can Peppers be a Big Ten villain when he hasn't even played a Big Ten game? I'll answer that question with a question: How many recent Big Ten players have generated more headlines before they step on the field than Michigan's prized incoming recruit? It's not Peppers' fault, but 13 of the 14 Big Ten fan bases likely are tired of hearing about the next Charles Woodson, his connection to "Naughty by Nature" and Peppers being the potential savior for an underachieving Wolverines program. Peppers might be the most anticipated Big Ten recruit since Pryor in 2008. He has a lot to prove this fall, and quite a few folks hope he busts.
Villains on deck: Urban Meyer, Bo Pelini, Connor Cook, Julie Hermann, Christian Hackenberg