Big Ten mailbag


The Big Ten mailbag is back for a Thursday edition. As always, thanks for your questions. Read on for wild speculation.

Mitch Sherman: Am I allowed to say that it will be both? It's my mailbag, so yes. I'm going with a real dark horse to raise the trophy in Indianapolis -- that's right, Ohio State, which features dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball. With the exception of defensive end Joey Bosa, the three quarterbacks and Ezekiel Elliott are most visible among the OSU stars, but by midseason, I think the Buckeyes on defense will rank as the Big Ten's most formidable unit. As Urban Meyer said after the national title last year, Ohio State was a year ahead of schedule in 2014. Much of that early maturation came on defense from players like Josh Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple, who are set to break out in a big way in 2015.

Mitch Sherman: I like Joel Stave, too, primarily because of his ability to win. For all the knocks on the fifth-year Wisconsin senior, he's 21-7 as a starting quarterback. It's not always pretty; not always easy to watch, in fact. But Stave gets it done, completing 58.7 percent of his throws for nearly 5,000 yards over the past three seasons. Seemingly to the dismay of some Wisconsin fans, he's got a real shot to break Brooks Bollinger's school record of 30 career wins. Stave, of course, deserves some of the skepticism that follows him. He wasn't mentally ready to play last year for more than a month of the season. And yes, Doug, I think Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, on the staff in Madison at the start of Stave's career, will help him take the right approach to this final season.

Mitch Sherman: You ask a lot, Ben. Sleeper players? It sounds like a weeklong series on the Big Ten blog. Thanks for the idea and stay tuned. I'll cover you for now on Michigan State. With the Spartans, always look to the secondary for candidates to break out. This year, how about Montae Nicholson, Demetrious Cox and R.J. Williamson, a versatile trio that should help MSU fans forget about Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes. Riley Bullough at middle linebacker has good bloodlines and the endorsement of MSU coaches. Offensively, I'm keeping an eye on freshman running back L.J. Scott, perhaps not a true sleeper because of his high-profile status as a recruit, but still a contender to emerge in a big way. As for Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern, all three are fortunate to play in a West Division that includes first-year coaches at Wisconsin and Nebraska. The opportunity for success is there -- if, especially in the case of the Hawkeyes and Wildcats, they can avoid self-destruction.

Mitch Sherman: Very low. Good thing is, Michigan State and Ohio State play Nov. 21 at Ohio Stadium, so if it comes down to those two for one spot in the playoff, it'll be settled on the field. Consider that game a play-in. Even if it's a great game and the loser wins out -- say it's MSU with a September victory over Oregon -- I see little chance that the committee would pick two teams from the same conference. Especially the Big Ten. Especially when one of those teams didn't play in its conference title game. Remember how one-loss Baylor and TCU were penalized a year ago for not playing a 13th game? The committee won't reverse that precedent and omit two Power 5 conferences from the playoff.

Mitch Sherman: Ask me this at any point over the past couple of years, and I'd have always leaned toward Derrick Green. When in good shape and healthy, I think he's got the best combination of athleticism and power to develop into a great Big Ten back. Coming off a broken clavicle that kept him out of the second half of his sophomore season last fall, Green again is primed for a breakout year in Jim Harbaugh's power running game. That said, Green has yet to emerge, so I'm getting skeptical. De'Veon Smith remains a good option for the Wolverines. Drake Johnson, on the mend from a second ACL tear, looked good late last year. USC transfer Ty Isaac is the wild card. If not Green, in fact, Isaac is my pick to blossom in the first year of the new U-M regime.