Big Ten: Kirk Ferentz

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
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We're taking more of your mailbag questions from Twitter these days, and we now have individual Twitter handles in addition to the ESPN Big Ten account. Make sure to follow each of us for all your league news. Here is mine.

Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:

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Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.

Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.

I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.


Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...

Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?

Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.


Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?

Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.

The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.

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Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.

As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
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Guess who's coming to the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on Tuesday in Chicago? Former players.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.

B1G media day preview: Iowa

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
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Big Ten media days arrive in just less than two weeks on July 28. But we can hardly wait for the event and the season to arrive, so we’ll get you ready in the coming days by identifying three pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, along with their possible answers.

Next up on the list is Iowa, which is bringing left tackle Brandon Scherff, defensive tackle Carl Davis and running back Mark Weisman along with coach Kirk Ferentz to talk about a program looking to compete for a title in the West Division.

1. Are the Hawkeyes legitimate contenders in the league?

No team is going to rule itself out of the race before the season even begins, so an affirmative response from the Hawkeyes should come as no surprise. But after largely spending the last few years outside of the spotlight and with relatively modest expectations, Iowa will be generating a decent amount of attention as a dark-horse pick to compete in the remodeled divisional lineup this fall. The Hawkeyes might have been undervalued for what they accomplished during an eight-win campaign in 2013, and just how strongly they make their case as potential contenders could speak volumes about how much confidence there is in Iowa City.

2. Is there a possible No. 1 draft pick anchoring the line?

Even with returning stars such as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Ohio State's Braxton Miller around to headline the event, Scherff could wind up stealing the most attention in Chicago. There's already growing hype about the lofty draft projections for the senior lineman after he decided to come back for one more season with Iowa, and that decision will likely bring several questions about why he elected to put off a move to the next level. Scherff will no doubt have several chances to address that matter and his draft stock, and at the same time he might provide a useful advertisement for Ferentz and the program on the value of sticking around at Iowa.

3. Can the defense reload?

Replacing the experience of a group of linebackers with more than 100 collective starts is no small challenge. And considering the amount of production Iowa received from Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris as they combined for more than 1,000 tackles during their careers, the task only looks more daunting. Iowa thrived last season in no small part because they allowed less than 19 points per game and finished second in the Big Ten in total defense, so finding replacements for those veteran linebackers is going to be critical -- not to mention what appears to be open competition for a couple starting jobs in the secondary. Having a proven veteran up front in Davis is certainly a nice foundation, and he could provide an early assessment of the new faces around him in the lineup ahead of training camp.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
5:00
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The Monday mailbag is back, and we're also incorporating more of your questions from Twitter. So make sure to follow us if for some weird reason you're not already doing so.

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.


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.


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.



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. 
Earlier this week, we offered an overview on the criteria that makes up the average Big Ten champion. So, naturally, we thought we'd take a look at how that criteria applies to teams this season.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the makeup of conference champions, so this isn't meant to be a variable-free breakdown. Still, it should add to the debate on just who has the right stuff to be the next B1G winner. And it'll be interesting to see how this ends up applying to the 2014 season.

So, without further delay, here are four criteria that have been historically important for Big Ten champions -- and how they apply to teams entering the 2014 season:

Criteria 1: Rank within top 40 of scoring defense

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers
On the fence: Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin
Does meet criteria: Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State

This criteria has been mandatory for the last 13 teams that went on to win the Big Ten title, so it seemed appropriate to list this first. And it was easy to immediately cross off a few teams. Lest you think some were eliminated too quickly, rest assured, all the teams that didn't meet the above criteria didn't meet at least three total criteria anyway. Iowa, which is one of four teams to satisfy this, might seem like it belongs in the middle -- but Kirk Ferentz usually finds a way to get this done, even when he's forced to rebuild. The Hawkeyes satisfied this criteria in six of the past seven seasons, and they have a relatively easy schedule this year.

Criteria 2: Rank within the top 30 of rush defense

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes were the only team to meet all four criteria that have been historically important for Big Ten champions.
Doesn't meet criteria: Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue
On the fence: Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin
Does meet criteria: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers

Eleven of the past 13 champs met this criteria, and more than half ranked within the top 10. So, needless to say, this is a pretty important element. And the Gophers simply have too much working against them. Not only do they no longer have DT Ra'Shede Hageman, who had the ability to take over a game, but Minnesota hasn't met this criteria in a decade. It's hard to see it improving that much over last season. As far as some teams stuck in the middle, Wisconsin and Iowa were on the verge of being in that undesirable "doesn't meet criteria" category, especially with two defensive rebuilding efforts underway, but both teams at least met this requirement last season and boast some talent. Which brings us to ... Rutgers? Yes, it might seem a little out of place with three of the better conference teams. But Big Ten fans might be surprised with the strength of this defensive line -- and the fact it ranked within the top six nationally the past two seasons.

Criteria 3: Control the turnover battle and the clock

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers
On the fence: Iowa, Minnesota
Does meet criteria: Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

The last 11 champs were on the right side of time of possession, and 11 of the last 13 won the turnover battle. Several Big Ten teams, such as Indiana and Rutgers, faced this issue -- but only one new team showed up on the "doesn't meet criteria" list this time around. Nebraska. Clearly, this is something that can be overcome. But, right now, the Huskers absolutely get a resounding "no" in this category. They lost the turnover battle the last three seasons and their opponents controlled the clock last year. Iowa and Minnesota need to do better, but they haven't done as lousy as others over the past four seasons.

Criteria 4: Rank within the top 30 of rush offense

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Maryland, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers
On the fence: Iowa, Minnesota
Does meet criteria: Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Eleven of the last 13 champs satisfied this criteria, and only one team was an exception: Michigan State. So maybe it doesn't seem fair to see the Spartans eliminated here. But we're not necessarily picking out the Big Ten champion -- just who satisfies with most criteria. And, sadly, Michigan State is out. It was much easier eliminating the Wolverines and Nittany Lions because both offensive lines have their fair share of question marks. Michigan averaged just 3.28 yards per carry last season and needs a tailback to step up, while Penn State hasn't broken the top 30 since 2008. Iowa and Minnesota were also both interesting cases. Neither has recent history on its side, but the Gophers need to move up just seven spots from last season to satisfy this criteria -- and dual-threat QB Mitch Leidner is leading the charge now. (The Gophers haven't met this criteria for eight straight seasons.) Iowa has a strong offensive line and three solid tailbacks, but it needs to move up 20 spots from last year. This might be the Hawkeyes' best shot at cracking the top 30 since the last season they did it, in 2008 when Shonn Greene finished sixth in the Heisman race.

So who meets all the criteria?

Well, Adam Rittenberg just covered how the Buckeyes might be getting a bit too much credit, but Ohio State is the only team that satisfies all the criteria here. Easily. Criteria 1? They've done that every season since the turn of the century. Criteria 2? For the last four seasons, they've been on the right side of both turnovers and time of possession. Criteria 3? The defensive line is arguably the best position group in the Big Ten. Criteria 4? They've done it year after year for the last nine seasons. Odds are the Buckeyes will meet all the criteria once again in 2014. We'll just have to see if that's enough for a title.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
5:00
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I'm back from a delightful vacation romp through beautiful Colorado and ready to take your questions. Fire away.

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Regarding the article on colleges looking to improve the in-game experience to improve declining ticket sales, why is there not more talk about lowering the prices to reasonable levels? I'm a Buckeyes fan. I make a decent living, but with a wife and three kids at home, $85 for a non-prime home game ($170 if I want to go with someone) is just too high for me to go to a game more than once every five or six years. I understand some schools can charge that -- tOSU being one of them -- and still sell out. But frankly, I don't care about wi-fi and local eateries at my games; I care about being able to afford the game in the first place. Otherwise, I'll buy a thick steak, craft beer and enjoy the game at home and still save $50-plus on the experience.

Brian Bennett: Some really good points here, Dave. Us media types are guilty sometimes of not understanding how much it costs for a fan -- or especially a family -- to attend a game once you include parking, concessions, etc. (After all, we get free passes and choice parking spots, most of the time). It can definitely take a toll on the checkbook, and I can't blame someone for wanting to save money and watch the game on their super-size, high-def TV at home.

On the other hand, this is a simple supply-and-demand situation. Teams not just in college football but throughout all of sports increase ticket prices because they know they have fan bases willing to pay those prices in order to see the games they love. Yet there is likely a tipping point at which more fans would rather stay home than go through the hassle of seeing a game in person, and teams have to make sure the stadium experience is still valuable. Things like improved wi-fi can help that, especially for students and younger fans. Making the gameday experience and atmosphere better for fans is a worthy goal. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for lowered ticket prices, however.


Scott E. from Phoenix writes: The "Schools aiming to improve fan amenities" article touches on the same things to improve attendance that I've seen in other articles/op-eds. One thing I've yet to see touched on is the lack of NCAA control over recruiting and enforcing the student part of student-athlete as reasons that may be turning fans off to college football. I'm not interested in a semi-pro/minor-league model sponsored by universities, and I know I'm not alone. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I see where you're coming from, Scott, but from my experiences and interactions with fans, you seem to be in the minority. While I know many fans are troubled by some of the directions college sports have headed, they are also still very loyal to their own schools and teams. I don't hear many fans complaining about recruiting rules or other things when their teams are doing well. Winning still seems to be the No. 1 way to draw people into the stadium..


David from Coastal, Texas, writes: I'm excited for the game between Wisconsin and LSU. The game is set for 8/30. This date is also near the peak of hurricane season. This could affect the playoff future for both teams. Is there a plan regarding the possibility?

Brian Bennett: The College Football Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, brought to you by David. All kidding aside, I suppose that is a possibility. While Houston's NRG Stadium (so hard to keep up with all these stadium name changes) has a retractable roof that can allow teams to play through inclement weather, neither school would want to put fans and players in harm's way if there were a serious storm that weekend. Just two years ago, we saw games on that same weekend be rescheduled because of Hurricane Isaac.

I haven't heard of any advance plan to reschedule the Wisconsin-LSU game. Usually, teams try to line up a future bye week or play a week after the regular season ends. The Badgers and Tigers have different bye weeks in 2014 (Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 for Wisconsin; Nov. 1 and Nov. 22 for LSU), so that won't work. A postponement to the end of the season could be complicated by conference title games and the Playoff selection date. Another option may be to play the game on Sunday, Labor Day or the following Tuesday, depending on the weather. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.


Julie from Chicago writes: I was really surprised, while reading the poll about which B1G player had the most pressure, that Braxton Miller was not an option. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like he would be an obvious candidate. It's his senior year, his last shot for a Heisman run, last chance to win a bowl game and the B1G championship. Plus, he lost some key players on the offense. Don't you agree he has a lot on his shoulders?

Brian Bennett: It's true that Miller's legacy will be affected by what he and his team accomplish this season. He's had a fantastic career, but all he has to show for it in terms of team success so far are two division titles and no postseason wins (with probation playing an obvious factor in 2012). Still, Miller is the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year and could end up breaking all kinds of Ohio State records. I doubt many people would blame him if the Buckeyes finished short of their goals this year. It's much more likely that Ohio State's success or failure will ride on its defense, or possibly even its revamped offensive line, than on Miller in 2014.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: To maintain the raised level of fan interest in a crowded sports market, it's important for the Gophers to not take a step back from last season. However, with the schedule set up the way it is, it could be really difficult to match last season's total of eight wins. Knowing it's way early, what's your initial guess as to how many victories the Gophers could get out of this group of games: at TCU, at Michigan, versus Northwestern, versus Iowa, versus Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin?

Brian Bennett: DJ, you're right that the schedule does Minnesota no favors, something Jerry Kill has mentioned a few times this offseason. It's not going to be easy. Yet the Gophers showed last year that they could be competitive against everyone and even beat a few teams they traditionally have struggled against, like Nebraska. I think the early game at TCU is huge. It's very important for Minnesota to get off to a good start and bank as many nonconference wins as possible before that rugged league slate kicks in. The Gophers also must play well at home, so those games against Northwestern and Iowa in particular loom large. If Kill's team could beat TCU and even go only 2-4 in that league stretch you mentioned, they'd still be set up well for a return to postseason. I don't like the Ohio State matchup for them, and the road games against Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin will be difficult. But it's Year 4 for Kill and his staff, and his team ought to be ready to handle these types of challenges now.


Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Brian, you wrote that Iowa has been handed a dream season this year and could possibly be undefeated when Wisconsin comes to town. Two questions: Would anything less than 10-0 make the season a disappointment? And how many games do the Hawkeyes have to win to maintain the program's current upswing?

Brian Bennett: I don't necessarily think it's a disappointment if Iowa has a loss or two heading into the final two games. Let's say the Hawkeyes drop a nonconference game, like at Pitt or vs. Iowa State. They could still potentially be undefeated in the Big Ten and have a West Division title at stake in the final two weeks. Even a conference loss wouldn't be devastating, as Iowa would likely control its own destiny in the division. Getting to the Big Ten championship game, regardless of record, would be a huge step for the program. With the schedule and the amount of experience Kirk Ferentz's team has coming back, I'd say anything less than a repeat of last year's eight wins would feel disappointing, and even another 8-4 regular season would have many fans grumbling.
Anyone who follows Iowa football, even casually, knows the Hawkeyes are a developmental program -- and damn proud of it. They've repeatedly taken the overlooked and underappreciated and made them into excellent college players, and NFL draft picks.

But there has been debate whether Iowa aims high enough and far enough on the recruiting trail. Iowa caused a stir last winter when head coach Kirk Ferentz said he no longer assigned an assistant to Florida and Eric Johnson, then the team's recruiting coordinator, said Florida, annually one of the top states in producing FBS players, wasn't a huge priority for the program.

Despite several recent misses in the Sunshine State, the Hawkeyes' approach seemed provincial at best and irresponsible at worst. But perhaps it's just different.

Colleague Jeremy Crabtree explores Iowa's recruiting strategy, which focuses almost entirely on the Midwest and on bringing in under-the-radar prospects.

From the story:
Most coaches believe that if you want to win big, you have to own the South. Not Iowa.

"Iowa just does things differently than anybody else in our league, and virtually everybody else in the country," one Big Ten recruiting coordinator said. "I don't think you'll ever see us focus only on the Midwest like [Iowa has] done, because it won't work for us. But for them it does. It's kind of like what you see in baseball with Billy Beane. The way Iowa recruits is kind of like 'Moneyball' on the recruiting trail. They have their formula, and a lot of people think they're crazy for doing it that way. It's produced a lot of good results, though."

Iowa has been a consistent bowl team during Ferentz's tenure with success spikes from 2002-04 and again in 2009. Given the small local recruiting base, it has been an impressive stretch.

While every Big Ten coaching staff talks about first securing its local territory in recruiting, Iowa seems to take it one step further. The Hawkeyes' coaches are always seeking the underrated Midwest prospect, who fit better with their culture.

Check out this quote from Johnson in Crabtree's piece:
"You have the guys from places like Illinois, and now especially Ohio and Indiana, that were overlooked because Ohio State and Notre Dame are recruiting on such a national level. Those kids play so much harder because they have a chip on their shoulder. Ohio State and Notre Dame told them they weren't good enough to play there, and recruits like to prove they were wrong."

That's certainly true in many cases, and Iowa has benefited from bringing in chip-on-their-shoulder recruits from the heartland. But it leaves me with two questions:

1. Will the "Moneyball" approach help Iowa reach its ultimate peak as a program?

2. Is Iowa too accepting of its place in college football's hierarchy?

I'm big on understanding who you really are as a program -- not enough fans do this -- but I've sat in Ferentz's office and heard him say, "We're not USC." While it's true, it also sounds a bit defeatist -- and tough to reconcile given that he's making a top-10 salary.

The population trends don't lie, and while recruiting rankings can be subjective, it can't be disputed that more elite players live outside the Big Ten footprint. Iowa has shown it can reach a certain level with try-hard, local and regional types, but can it reach the next level -- competing for a college football playoff spot -- without branching out and pursuing more nationally elite prospects? Because any program that pays its coach what Iowa pays Ferentz should be aiming for the playoff, period.

It's great to see Iowa making overdue facilities upgrades. There are other things the program can do to promote itself and become more appealing to top recruits, like Michigan State has done.

But I don't see a path to the playoff without making national recruiting, and particularly the Southeast, a major priority. I'm encouraged that Iowa's most recent 2015 recruits come from Texas (LB Justin Jinning) and Florida (WR Adrian Falconer). We'll see if more prospects follow from those fertile states.

How do you feel about Iowa's approach? Let me know.

Key stretch: Iowa

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
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Fútbol might have the world's focus right now, but we're still writing about football. As we continue to count down toward the season, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Today, let's examine the make-or-break schedule section for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Key stretch: Wisconsin (Nov. 22), Nebraska (Nov. 28)

Breakdown: OK, so we said in the intro we'd be looking at the key three- or four-game stretches, and this is only two. Iowa is unique in the league in that regard because of its schedule. If the season started today, the Hawkeyes would likely be favored in every one of their Big Ten games, with the possible exception of the Nov. 8 road trip to Minnesota (though Iowa did win handily in Minneapolis a year ago, so even that is highly doubtful). Of course, Kirk Ferentz's team actually has to take care of business on the field, including its nonconference games against Pitt and Iowa State. But the fact remains that Iowa was handled a dream schedule -- on paper, at least -- where the top two teams it must face both come to Kinnick Stadium in a seven-day stretch to end the regular season. Who knows what will transpire in the first 10 games. Still, it's highly likely that success in 2014 for the Hawkeyes will boil down to these final two contests.

Prediction: First, we're glad to see the Heartland Trophy game go back to an annual affair. Secondly, the Heroes Game might have finally become a thing after Iowa won last year in Lincoln. There doesn't appear to be a lot separating the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Cornhuskers this season, and health and late-year motivation will play a big role in these two games. Barring a slew of injuries a la 2012, Iowa should win at least one of these games with the Kinnick advantage. We'll say the Hawkeyes go 1-1, just because the teams seem so even that it's virtually a toss-up. But if Iowa wins both, there's a good chance Ferentz's squad will be playing again a week later in Indianapolis.
C.J. Fiedorowicz was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the league coaches last season and was drafted at the start of the third round by Houston last month.

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.

[+] EnlargeRay Hamilton
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIRay Hamilton will get his chance in the tight end spotlight for Iowa this fall.
From the just-retired Dallas Clark to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler and others, the Hawkeyes have thrived at producing top-flight tight ends under Kirk Ferentz. ESPN.com's recent Position U series ranked Iowa No. 2 among all programs for the title of Tight End U, and the school has had much more recent success at that spot than the No. 1 team on the list, Miami.

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.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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A devastating World Cup showing for Spain. On the plus side, they get to go back to Spain.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 28, 2014
May 28
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Only one mailbag from me this week because of the holiday. Let's make it a good one (instead of the usual, wholly adequate ones):


Brian L. via Twitter writes: Do you think MSU would be where they are today, including Mark Dantonio, if Mouse Trap and Little Giants had failed three years ago?

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. For sure, the 2010 season represented a breakthrough for Dantonio and the Spartans as they won 11 games and captured a share of their first Big Ten title in 20 years. While both those trick plays -- Mouse Trap vs. Northwestern and Little Giants against Notre Dame -- proved crucial to the outcome, it's possible Michigan State could have won without them, but we'll never know for sure. The key question, I guess, is if the Spartans had lost both those games, would they have continued on their upward climb? The Little Giants play in particular and that 11-win season really began to put the program back on the national radar, showed a different side of Dantonio to the public and probably contributed toward the team's momentum. So it's all part of the stew, so to speak. But I also think Dantonio and his staff had been building toward great things with their recruiting and coaching stability, so it might have happened regardless.


Ron from Michigan writes: Brian, I would say Michigan's most indispensable defensive player has to be cornerback Blake Countess. He's great in coverage and had a lot of interceptions last season which contributed to helping the offense as well. Did you at least put him in the mix for consideration?

Brian Bennett: He was definitely considered. But the fact is that Countess is now at nickelback, which is an important position (and, of course, a terrible band) but not necessarily the most important on the field. If Jabrill Peppers is the real deal, Michigan will be fine at corner. Maybe we're expecting too much of Peppers early on, but that's why Countess wasn't listed among the two most indispensable.


Clint C. via Twitter writes: Can the Hawkeyes finally get over the hump and finish in the top two this year in the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I assume by top two you mean winning the West Division. And Iowa has a great chance to do just that. Not only do they miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan from the East, they get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home the final two weeks. You simply can't ask for a better schedule, and Kirk Ferentz's team has enough experience and talent that it could be favored in every single game this season.


Luke B. via Twitter writes: What is IU's realistic ceiling for this season?

Brian Bennett: Unlike Iowa, the schedule does Indiana few favors in 2014. Consecutive nonconference road games against Bowling Green -- a potential favorite in the MAC -- and reigning SEC East Division champ Missouri will not be easy, and the Hoosiers also have road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. Still, this program has been improving under Kevin Wilson the past few years and wasn't far off from making a bowl game last season. Getting to the postseason should be the ultimate goal this year, and I think seven wins is probably the ceiling if the defense can become even moderately respectable.


Connor M. via Twitter writes: After losing 4/5 of their O-line and 3/4 of their DBs, can the Buckeyes' skill position players and defensive front seven hold it down until those groups come along?

Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for Ohio State's season. The losses in the secondary, except for Bradley Roby, don't sting that much since the pass defense was atrocious at the end of last season, anyway. There is talent to work with back there, and I think the new approach by Chris Ash should help the Buckeyes be more aggressive and better use their speed in pass coverage. I still have some questions about the linebackers. The defensive line should be one of the best in the country, provided that it weathers the storm from the loss of Noah Spence for two games and Jamal Marcus, who is transferring.

The offensive line will need to find the right mix, but Ed Warriner is one of the best in the business of figuring that stuff out. Ohio State might not have the best offensive line in the Big Ten in 2014, but I expect it to remain very good with perhaps some early growing pains. The Buckeyes are loaded with speed at the offensive skill positions, but remember they lost their top rusher (Carlos Hyde) and top receiver (Corey Brown) and that there aren't many proven players in that wideout corps.

Urban Meyer's team is young but ridiculously talented in a lot of key spots, which is why I think Ohio State is the most intriguing team in the Big Ten this season. Playing Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in three of the first four games is no cakewalk and will be a much bigger challenge than the Buckeyes experienced the past two seasons in the nonconference slate. The best news for Meyer's team is that Braxton Miller is back, and he can erase a lot of mistakes early on while all the parts come together.


Joe H. Florida writes: Brian, I have been to both Minneanoplace and the Big Guava (Tampa). You need to get out more if you think Tampa can't compare to the Twin Cities.

Brian Bennett: To each his own, Joe. But I've been to Tampa more than a dozen times in my life, and other than the great weather and proximity to the beaches, I've found it to be a very dull city without much of a central hub. Minneapolis has much more to do downtown (and you can even walk indoors when it's cold). Fans would complain about the weather in the Twin Cities, but I think they would find plenty of fun activities if Minneapolis were to host the College Football Playoff title game.
Two years ago, Iowa had a simple goal with its running backs: just get somebody on the field.

An unusual stretch of misfortune -- handed down by AIRBHG or some other dastardly entity -- had crippled Iowa's once-formidable running back room. So when a 240-pound sledgehammer named Mark Weisman essentially came out of nowhere and grabbed the football, Iowa simply jumped on his back for as long as it could. Weisman recorded 98 carries during a four-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October in 2012. He opened the 2013 season with 85 carries in Iowa's first three games.

[+] EnlargeJordan Canzeri
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJordan Canzeri ranked third in carries for the Hawkeyes but first in average yards per carry (6.5).
If Weisman records a similar workload early this season, something has gone very wrong for the Hawkeyes. One of the many luxuries Iowa enjoys entering the 2014 campaign -- along with a favorable schedule, a stable quarterback situation and solid line play on both sides of the ball -- is depth at running back. Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock might not be known names around the Big Ten, but both have started games and add to Iowa's backfield mix.

Weisman likely will enter the season as Iowa's lead ball-carrier, but his workload should be much more manageable. The goal is to keep all the backs fresh for the stretch run, which includes late November home games against West Division challengers Wisconsin and Nebraska.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use everybody in a smart way," coach Kirk Ferentz told ESPN.com. "It's a good mix for us."

Although Weisman looks and at times performs like a workhorse back, he has a point of diminishing returns. In 2012, he recorded 673 yards and eight touchdowns during the 98-carry stretch between Sept. 15 and Oct. 13, but he suffered an ankle injury in the final game against Michigan State. He had just 14 carries the next two contests before sitting out two weeks to heal.

Weisman had 100 yards or more in four of Iowa's first five games last fall, while accumulating 119 carries in the process. But another foot injury, also against Michigan State, limited him both in practices and in games for about a month. He had no more than 13 carries in the five games between Oct. 5 and Nov. 9.

"We've kind of seen it for two years," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "As the season goes on and his carries begin to mount, there comes a point where he's not quite as effective as he was early. Though Mark would never say a word, I’ve got to think his body's getting beaten up."

Canzeri's emergence late last season suggests a better carries balance for Iowa's backs. As Weisman healed, Canzeri had 332 yards on only 43 carries in Iowa's final four regular-season contests, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He produced runs of 43 yards against Wisconsin and 37 yards against Nebraska and contributed as a receiver in wins against both Nebraska and Michigan.

Iowa improved from 101st nationally in rushing in 2012 to 50th last year.

Two springs ago, Canzeri had positioned himself as Iowa's likely starter before tearing his ACL. Despite a quick recovery, he sat out the 2012 season and worked on pass protection, among other things.

"I just knew it was a time to get stronger, get faster and get better," Canzeri said. "It was fortunate that it was during the 4-8 season that no one really wants to think about. Before I was confident, but I was smaller and my speed was my main attribute. Now I've gained another year and gotten stronger and more mature and have built into a more complete football player."

Ferentz looks at Canzeri differently than he did a year ago, expressing "total confidence" in the junior to contribute significantly. Bullock actually has more career carries (263) than Canzeri but likely will be used as a third-down back because of his strong pass-blocking and pass-catching skills (39 career receptions).

Each back has his own style, as Ferentz notes, but their differences aren't as stark as they were two springs ago. Sophomore LeShun Daniels, at 215 pounds, adds another power option, and Ferentz said the team's depth at fullback with Adam Cox and Macon Plewa is the best it has been in his tenure.

"Whoever's out there can do all those same things," Canzeri said, "which is good because when the person who has the hot hand is getting tired, the next person that comes in isn't just filling in but someone who can get the job done just as well.

"It's really cool to see."

It should lead to a fresher and faster group of backs, especially when Iowa needs them most.

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