Big Ten: Kirk Ferentz

Big Ten morning links

March, 5, 2015
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It’s the middle of another cold, snowy, football-less week in Big Ten country. We’ll do our best to put a smile on your face anyway with today’s edition of the morning links.

1. College football fans have come up with countless ways to process the agony of a tough season. Iowa fans have been more creative than most, going so far as to develop their own mythical deity to explain their misfortune. They’ve raised the bar again.

Two frustrated Hawkeyes, one of whom happens to tour with REO Speedwagon now and then, vented this week about a 7-6 record through the magic of Broadway musicals. They discovered that Kirt Ferentz’s healthy salary worked out to be $571,400 per win in 2014, which lends itself nicely to a familiar classic born in the mid-1990s. Be warned: This version is even more likely to be stuck in your head than the original.

Of all the ways to express anger over young men playing a game below a fanbase’s standards -- from poisoning trees to horrible social media mentions and death threats, this has to be among the most enjoyable. Kudos to @actioncookbook and @TimStop24 for a job well done.

And in other soon-to-be viral and entertaining Internet news this week, it appears Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has struck up a Twitter friendship with daytime television’s Judge Judy. Harbaugh, a self-described devoted fan, congratulated her honor on signing a contract extension earlier this week. On Wednesday, Judge Judy responded.
2. One of the ugliest scenes of the most recent bowl season may end up helping Mike Riley get off to a good start at Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers open the 2015 season by hosting BYU, a team that ended its appearance in the Miami Bowl in a sucker-punch brawl with Memphis. The game, a back-and-forth thriller, quickly deteriorated after BYU failed to score in its second possession of overtime. Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall promised his players that were involved would be disciplined, and it looks like that could come in the week leading up to this year’ season opener.

The details of what type of punishment Mendenhall has in mind for roughly 10 of his players isn’t clear. They may miss game time or preparation time in the week leading up to the game. It’s a necessary move by BYU, and an unexpected benefit for Nebraska, who will likely still be working out some kinks under its new coaching staff in early September.

3. USA Today published its Big Ten spring preview Wednesday, which started with a nod to the team that everybody in the conference will be chasing for the foreseeable future. Urban Meyer was expected to change Ohio State for the better when he arrived three-plus years ago. But it wasn’t clear then how much of an impact, as the article points out, he would have on the entire conference. The Big Ten’s momentum from a 6-5 bowl record is spilling into the spring. The conference heavyweights have all done their best to keep pace with the Buckeyes. The quality of the league is on the rise, and as much as any fan outside of Ohio will hate to admit it, a lot of credit is due to Meyer and his staff for that change.

Now, onto the links...

State of the program: Iowa Hawkeyes

February, 19, 2015
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With spring practice near in the Big Ten, we're taking a snapshot of every program. We'll examine recent performance, win-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and recruiting.

Iowa is up next:

2014 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, fourth in West Division)

Three-year record: 19-19

Coaching situation: Kirk Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten football coaches, heading toward his 17th season in Iowa City -- four years short of the Hayden Fry reign. Ferentz built a stable foundation, raised Iowa to a level that arguably exceeded Fry’s best years and has watched the Hawkeyes slide over the past five seasons. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been with Ferentz since the beginning, and offensive coordinator Greg Davis is a veteran in the business who has been criticized at multiple stops for doing less with more than some of his peers. The head coach’s son, Brian Ferentz, recently promoted to run game coordinator, is considered an innovative coach, and LeVar Woods, newly moved to coach tight ends, did nice work with the linebackers.

Roster situation: It’s not awash in talent. The Hawkeyes have developed linebackers and offensive linemen well. And the trend figures to continue with youngsters like Bo Bower and Josey Jewell on the defensive side and Ike Boettger, Boone Myers and Sean Welsh on offense. Iowa loses talented offensive tackles Andrew Donnal and Brandon Scherff (a consensus All-American); receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell; running back Mark Weisman; defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat; and linebacker Quinton Alston. That’s a lot to replace. Defensive end Drew Ott is a budding star, and cornerback Desmond King is already there. Iowa needs C.J. Beathard or Jake Rudock to take charge at quarterback.

Recruiting situation: The Hawkeyes signed a 21-man class this month that ranked 57th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, one spot ahead of Indiana and also ahead of Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois. It’s never been about rankings, though, for Iowa, which signed the No. 49 class a year ago. If the Hawkeyes find the right fits, they’re doing well. For instance, Iowa badly needs a running back to break its stretch of oddly poor luck at the position over the past several years. It had a solid candidate in Karan Higdon out of Florida, but he flipped to Michigan at the 11th hour. Iowa will always find a few hidden gems. It found a promising legacy at home in 27th-rated athlete Drew Cook and pulled the nation’s No. 5-rated center, James Daniels, out of Ohio. Still, the Hawkeyes need more high-end talent to keep up with fellow West Division contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska, against which Iowa is 1-4 over the past three years.

Trajectory: After the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Hawkeyes’ three-year record was 19-19. Same this year. Is Iowa stuck in neutral? Sure looks like it. As recently as 2010, it's three-year record was 28-11. Go back to 2004, it was 32-7. The last time Iowa had a three-year record under .500 was 2001 after Ferentz’s third season, and the program was clearly trending up. What now? Well, at best, Iowa is treading water, though a solid showing in 2015 could put it back on track. Worst case, its troubling finish to 2014, followed by the loss of a strong senior class, more uncertainty at quarterback and a sluggish recruiting class could spell doom for this regime.
It's been quite an offseason already nationally and around the Big Ten. Earlier Monday, colleague Adam Rittenberg provided a rundown of the altered coaching landscape of the Big Ten's East Division.

We continue our recap of the coaching moves with a look at the West Division, featuring a mix of turnover at high-profile Nebraska and Wisconsin and longevity elsewhere:

ILLINOIS
Who's out?

Greg Colby, defensive line
Tim Salem, special teams

Who's in?

Mike Phair, co-defensive coordinator

Notes: Coach Tim Beckman remains in the market for an assistant coach to fill Salem's spot. The Illini got Phair from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will run the defense with Tim Banks after Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten for the past two years in defending the run, a factor in Colby's removal. Before turning to Phair, Beckman attempted to hire Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, but the longtime sidekick of Gary Pinkel opted to stay with the Tigers.

IOWA
Who's out?

No changes, though coach Kirk Ferentz made a few assignment shifts last week.

Promoted/moved

Brian Ferentz adds run-game coordinator to work with offensive line
Seth Wallace adds cornerbacks and nickelbacks to work as recruiting coordinator
LeVar Woods moves from linebackers to tight ends

Notes: Some have argued that Kirk Ferentz, set to enter his 17th season, should have made more significant changes after the Hawkeyes underachieved, especially on offense. Brian Ferentz has done nice work with the line. His promotion should allow offensive coordinator Greg Davis to focus more on the tenuous quarterback situation. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker can also focus on more big-picture work after the changes this month, and Jim Reid will alone handle the linebackers with Woods moving to the offensive side.

MINNESOTA
Who's out?

Are you kidding?

Notes: Status quo for the Gophers after two straight eight-win seasons. Coach Jerry Kill's staffers, including strength coach Eric Klein, have worked together for a combined 131 years, more than any staff nationally. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill for 20 seasons; offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover for 16 and so on. Their longevity pays obvious dividends. Little changes look big for the Gophers, such as the switch last year of Brian Anderson to coach receivers and Pat Poore to running backs.

NEBRASKA
Who's out?

Bo Pelini, head coach
Tim Beck, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
John Papuchis, defensive coordinator
Ron Brown, running backs
Barney Cotton, assistant head coach/tight ends
Ross Els, linebackers
Rich Fisher, receivers
John Garrison, offensive line
Rick Kaczenski, defensive line
Charlton Warren, defensive backs

Who's in?

Mike Riley, head coach
Mark Banker, defensive coordinator
Danny Langsdorf, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Trent Bray, linebackers
Mike Cavanaugh, offensive line
Reggie Davis, running backs
Hank Hughes, defensive line
Bruce Read, special teams
Keith Williams, receivers

Notes: Riley brought Banker, Bray, Cavanaugh and Read straight from Oregon State, and added Langsdorf, a former OSU coordinator, from a one-year stopover as quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants. Davis, who came from Jim Harbaugh's staff with the San Francisco 49ers, is another former Riley assistant. Hughes came from Cincinnati, and Williams from Tulane. Riley retained Warren, but after two months with the new staff, he left last week for North Carolina, leaving the new coach to look for another man to coach the secondary -- Nebraska's fifth hire for the position in six years.

NORTHWESTERN
Who's out?

No changes.

Notes: Longevity reins in Evanston. Despite the Wildcats' struggles of the past two seasons, coach Pat Fitzgerald, entering his 10th season, has shown great confidence in his staff. Assistants Randy Bates (linebackers), Adam Cushing (offensive line), Matt MacPherson (running backs) and Jerry Brown (secondary) have been with Fitzgerald all the way. Brown, in fact, has coached at the school since 1993.

PURDUE
Who's out?

Kevin Sherman, receivers

Notes: Darrell Hazell remains in search of a replacement for Sherman, who spent two years with the Boilermakers before bolting for Pat Narduzzi's new staff at Pitt. The core of Hazell's staff has remained with him since the coach arrived from Kent State after the 2012 season.

WISCONSIN
Who's out?

Gary Andersen, head coach
Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Chris Beatty, receivers
Bill Busch, safeties
Jeff Genyk, tight ends/special teams
Chad Kauha'aha'a, defensive line
Ben Strickland, cornerbacks
T.J. Woods, offensive line

Who's in?

Paul Chryst, head coach
Joe Rudolph, offensive coordinator/offensive line
Inoke Breckterfield, defensive line
Chris Haering, special teams
Daronte' Jones, defensive backs
Tim Tibesar, outside linebackers
Mickey Turner, tight ends

Retained:

Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Thomas Brown, running backs

Notes: Despite early reports that Matt House would come with Chryst from Pitt as defensive coordinator, Aranda remained, which was a popular move. Rudolph (a former Wisconsin player and assistant coach), Breckterfield, Haering and Turner did follow Chryst to his new job at his alma mater. Jones comes from Hawaii and Tibesar, the former Purdue defensive coordinator, comes from Northwestern where he served as a consultant last year. The Badgers also appear set to hire Ted Gilmore, who spent the past three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, as their receivers coach. Strickland looks in position to remain as an in-house recruiting coordinator.

Big Ten morning links

February, 13, 2015
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Credit Kirk Ferentz for trying. Is it enough, though?

The Iowa coach, in preparation for his 17th season, announced changes Thursday to his staff assignments. Not coaching changes, but hey, something is better than nothing, right?

To summarize, LeVar Woods, formerly the linebackers coach, will take over the tight ends. Brian Ferentz is now the run game coordinator in addition to his responsibilities as offensive line coach. And Seth Wallace, who assisted with the defensive line last year, now coaches the nickels and cornerbacks.

Change does not come easily at Iowa, where the head coach's release of a postseason depth chart, in a departure from previous seasons, raised brows last month.

Iowa's offense needs an infusion of energy. Maybe quarterback C.J. Beathard can provide it. But the elder Ferentz is wise not to rely entirely on that. He's banking also on Woods, a linebacker on Ferentz's first two teams who did nice work on the defensive side, and the coach's son in an increased role.

Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette suggests that the new job description for Brian Ferentz rates as the most interesting of the changes. But what will the younger Ferentz do as run game coordinator? Certainly, he's not about to supercede offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has his hands full with quarterbacks Beathard and Jake Rudock.

Fact is, though, Iowa's quarterbacks -- and its defense -- would benefit most from a dynamic running game. The Hawkeyes' 4.12 yards per rush in 2014 ranked 10th in the Big Ten. It lacked explosiveness.

Brian Ferentz has extended Iowa's notable tradition of producing solid offensive linemen. If his work translates to the run game at large, maybe he can help get his dad back on the right track.

Nothing official out of Piscataway, New Jersey, yet on the potential hire of business consultant Jeff Towers as Rutgers' recruiting coordinator, but Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com is offering praise for coach Kyle Flood.

Mandel likens Towers, who has no known experience in football, and other similar hires at major programs to general managers at the pro level -- without the ability to trade or draft players, of course. (Don't get any ideas.)

Much remains unknown about the specifics of Towers' business experience. The only details uncovered came from his LinkedIn profile. Regardless, if Flood makes this move, clearly he believes in Towers to bring a new type of leadership to the business side of the Rutgers program.

College football programs are built like corporations today. Nearly every major program employs an operations director, the most effective of whom possess freedom in making decisions on non-coaching matters. So why not have a GM-like figure to run the personnel department, otherwise known as recruiting operations?

The size and structure of these staffs loom as a possible issue for the Power 5 conferences to debate. Even so, unless major restrictions are imposed -- unexpected in this age of autonomy -- hires like Towers will soon be viewed as standard practice.

Let's get to the links:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
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Welcome to another installment of the Big Ten mailbag, where you ask intriguing questions, I provide middling answers and we all try to fill the void between signing day and the start of spring practice.

John S. from Lindale, Georgia, writes: Hey Brian, in that Brady Hoke's recruiting classes were pretty highly rated, is it not possible that Michigan's new staff couldn't reasonably be expected to get the team to more than eight or nine wins next year? Seems like all the early projections for next year have a best-case scenario of no more than eight or nine wins. Thanks!

Brian Bennett: I've actually been surprised with some rosy projections for the 2015 Wolverines by fellow ESPN types in the past couple of days. Our Football Power Index has Michigan ranked 28th in the preseason, K.C. Joyner wrote that the Maize and Blue could win 10 games and challenge Ohio State Insider in the East Division and Brad Edwards picked Michigan to make the Rose Bowl Insider.

Um, guys, have you been watching the same Michigan team as I have? You know, the one that lost its best defensive player, best receiver and starting quarterback from last season? Jim Harbaugh deserves respect, but with a really murky quarterback situation and questions on the offensive line, at receiver and at running back, I just don't see 2015 being a banner debut season.

Yet as you mention, John, the cupboard is not entirely bare. The players Hoke and his staff recruited were ranked high for a reason, and Harbaugh and his guys are known for developing talent. That should equate to better results quickly, but maybe not this year. If Michigan can go 8-4 or better this fall, Harbaugh will have done a very good job.

Brian Bennett: Most coaches believe there should be changes made in recruiting. But good luck trying to get them all to agree on specific changes. This isn't just a Big Ten phenomenon, either. At the American Football Coaches Association national convention in Louisville last month, several of the nation's top coaches met and talked about whether there should be an early signing date and other changes. As one coach told me, "We talk about the same things every year, and nothing ever happens." It's a minor miracle that an early signing date in mid-December has a chance of coming about, though I believe the date should be earlier.

The reason why it's hard to get every coach on board with the same idea is that different schools have different agendas. Moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year would greatly help some Big Ten programs like Nebraska and Wisconsin. But ones like Ohio State and Penn State, which are much closer to rich talent bases, don't really need it. Jim Delany's job is to listen to what his coaches want. They may never come to a complete consensus, but I believe Big Ten coaches share many of the same principles and concerns about the accelerated recruiting calendar.

Brian Bennett: Austin Ward covered the Scarlet Knights' revolving door of playcallers in Wednesday's morning links. You want consistency with your staff, and it's tough on players who have to adjust to new terminology and a new way of doing things year after year.

Change isn't necessarily bad, though, and plenty of first-year offensive coordinators have done well. Michigan State's 2013 season is a prime example of that. What Rutgers has going in its favor is that the basic system hasn't really changed much since Greg Schiano's tenure began. Under Kyle Flood, the Scarlet Knights still run a pro-style set that new coordinator Ben McDaniels seems well-groomed to oversee. At some point, you'd like to see some continuity there for the players' sake, but Rutgers' success on offense this season probably depends a lot more on who's playing quarterback than who is calling plays from upstairs.

Brian Bennett: It doesn't hurt that the Hawkeyes are in the much more wide-open West Division, and they went into the final two weeks of last season with a solid chance of making it to Indianapolis before coming up short in their final two home games. In my view, it still all starts with the running game. Iowa has been mediocre at best at pounding the rock the past couple of seasons. As much as I admired Mark Weisman's story, the fact that no one could really beat him out as the primary ball carrier for two years speaks volumes.

Sure, it would be nice if Iowa developed a big-time passing game with loads of athletic receivers, but that's not all that realistic given the program's access to talent and Kirk Ferentz's philosophy. I think this program needs to rediscover some of the toughness that helped it get to major bowl games earlier in Ferentz's tenure and be more like what Wisconsin and Minnesota are, where opponents know it's going to be a long, physical day when you play them.

Brian Bennett: I can appreciate that coaches live in a bubble and devote all their energy and resources toward trying to get a large group of people all pulling in the same, successful direction. The best coaches are often control freaks who control every message their team receives, so of course they would view the media as being part of it.

Naturally, though, that's not the role journalists are supposed to fill. I never see what I write as "negative" or "positive." Rather, I look at it as simply "what is." If a team is winning, the coverage will seem positive, and the opposite is true if a team is losing. Beckman and his staff perhaps deserve a bit more credit for pushing last season's team to six wins and a bowl. But true positivity around the program only stems from winning more games.

Position battles: Iowa Hawkeyes

February, 10, 2015
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Spring practice is just around the corner in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern will be on the field before the end of this month, and the rest of the league will follow shortly after.

With that in mind, we're taking a look at some spring position battles to watch for each Big Ten team. We'll key on two to three spots for each squad and give you the outlook.

Up next: Iowa

Quarterback: Both C.J. Beathard and Jake Rudock had turns leading the offense last fall, and neither was able to really solidify himself as the full-time answer for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa coaching staff made some minor waves by listing Beathard at the top of the postseason depth chart, but in reality that doesn’t mean much since they’ll have all of spring and then training camp in the fall to sort out the competition. The Hawkeyes also have Tyler Wiegers waiting in reserve after he redshirted last season and he could potentially add some intrigue to a quarterback derby that will receive no shortage of attention.

Left tackle: One of the most physically gifted blockers in the country is gone, and regardless of who winds up winning the quarterback job, Iowa is going to need to find somebody to anchor the protection on the edge in place of Brandon Scherff. Boone Myers and Cole Croston both have size and have spent time in the program learning the system and gaining strength, and considering the big shoes they’re trying to fill, this camp could serve as a crucial audition. The Hawkeyes have room to improve across the line, but tackle figures to be the focus.

Defensive tackle: A talented tandem that gave Iowa little reason to worry about the interior of its defensive line is now gone, and Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat won’t be easy to replace. Iowa does have some upperclassmen on hand to potentially help ease the transition, and there actually isn’t all that much experience to draw on among Jaleel Johnson, Faith Ekakitie, Nathan Bazata and Kyle Terlouw. The Hawkeyes will need to find at least two reliable contributors out of that group with so much production now out the door and heading to the next level.
The 2014 season is well into the rearview mirror, and now signing day has come and gone. That means spring practice is right around the corner, and it will be here in just a little more than a couple of weeks for some Big Ten teams.

In the coming days, we'll highlight some position battles to watch for each team this spring. But it's clear right now that one thing has changed since the spring of 2014: the onslaught of true quarterback competitions has lessened.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Bill HaberCardale Jones won't have to look over his shoulder in the spring, but the fall could be a different story.
Last year, we counted no fewer than nine teams that had at least reasonable quarterback battles raging in the spring. This year, that number has been cut basically in half. Now, it's important to note that the grandaddy of all quarterback competitions -- Ohio State's forthcoming grand prix among Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones -- isn't really a spring battle at all. That's because Miller and Barrett should be either out or severely limited by injuries this spring, giving Jones most of the No. 1 reps. We'll have to wait until the summertime for that one to really heat up.

In fact, you can write the name of the starting quarterback in permanent ink on several programs' depth charts for 2015. Connor Cook's return for his senior season at Michigan State is enormous for the Spartans. Christian Hackenberg is still the man at Penn State (and hopefully, for his safety, operating behind a better offensive line). Nate Sudfeld returns for Indiana, and Aaron Bailey's transfer guarantees that Wes Lunt will run the show at Illinois, not that there was much doubt to begin with.

A new coaching staff at Nebraska could mean that Tommy Armstrong Jr. has to prove himself all over again. But with nearly two years of starting experience, no proven challengers behind him and coming off a strong bowl showing, Armstrong would really have to do something wrong to lose the job in the spring. At Wisconsin, Joel Stave has been shaky during various points of his career and now has a new coaching staff. Yet it's difficult to imagine Paul Chryst turning back to Tanner McEvoy or going with someone with zero experience such as Austin Kafentzis or D.J. Gillins when the Badgers open the year against Alabama.

Minnesota is wedded to Mitch Leidner. Caleb Rowe is the heavy favorite to start for Maryland and that will change only if he's not fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered in October.

By our count, that leaves five true quarterback battles this spring. Here they are, listed in descending order of intrigue:

Michigan: Fixing the quarterback situation is new coach Jim Harbaugh's highest priority, and there will be a number of viable candidates to choose from. Shane Morris is the only one with experience, but redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone will certainly push him hard. Zach Gentry, a four-star recruit that Michigan flipped from Texas, will arrive this summer to add even more competition.

Iowa: Kirk Ferentz has promised to open up things up this spring between incumbent starter Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Beathard put up better numbers in the Hawkeyes' bowl game and seemed to give the offense a spark at times during the season. But Rudock has the experience factor and a high level of trust from the coaches.

Rutgers: Who replaces Gary Nova? Chris Laviano served as Nova's backup all season and played in a few games, so he's got a leg up. But LSU transfer Hayden Rettig brings a promising set of skills, including a strong arm, and Giovanni Rescigno will try to make his presence felt this spring.

Northwestern: The Wildcats got a look at the future when Zack Oliver started for an injured Trevor Siemien in the season-ending loss to Illinois. Sophomore Matt Alviti is a mobile quarterback who was heralded as Northwestern's quarterback of the future when he arrived on campus. And redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, a four-star recruit last year, will enter the mix.

Purdue: Austin Appleby replaced Danny Etling and started the final seven games. But Purdue coach Darrell Hazell told the Lafayette Journal-Courier after the season that "We've still got to figure out where we're going with that situation." When you've won four games in two years, as the Boilers have, no job should be seen as safe. Redshirt freshman David Blough could sneak up and claim this job as well.

Quarterback battles won't dominate the talk during spring practice the way they did a year ago. But they will still be fun and intriguing to watch. At least while we wait for the Ohio State situation to work itself out.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.
We are looking around the league this week at one position for each Big Ten team that needs improvement, either because of poor production in 2014 or a loss of important personnel. Iowa is up next.

Problem position: Offensive tackle

Why offensive tackle is a problem: Tackle was the least of Iowa’s problems in 2014. In fact, it was the Hawkeyes' clear strength, with Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff on the left side and fellow senior Andrew Donnal opposite Scherff. As Iowa struggled to find consistency elsewhere, Scherff and Donnal remained solid. But there is no heir apparent. See the problem?

How it can be fixed: By doing what Iowa does better than anything else -- develop linemen. Say what you want about the lack of recent forward movement in Kirk Ferentz’s program, the Hawkeyes have continued to produce quality linemen. The head coach’s son deserves credit for the work done with Scherff over the past three years, but Donnal and center Austin Blythe are perhaps better examples of his good work.

Early 2015 outlook: The postseason depth chart lists Boone Myers, a rising sophomore, ahead of junior Cole Croston, the backup in 2014, at left tackle. Both came to Iowa City as walk-ons, though Myers, a backup guard last season, has earned a scholarship. Former tight end Ike Boettger, a sophomore still in need of more weight, started the offseason ahead of freshman Keegan Render on the right side. No matter the personnel, Iowa must find solid replacements. The Hawkeyes don't have the flexibility or athleticism on offense to account for an unreliable pair of bookends. Expect plenty of attention from the coaches paid to the tackles this spring.

Season report card: Iowa

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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If you find yourself stranded by the blizzard of 2015 on the eastern edge of Big Ten country, or bathing in the warmth out west, there is no better time to sit back and enjoy our postseason grades for every conference team. Up next is the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Offense: C

Iowa ranked right around the middle of the league in most important statistical categories -- seventh in scoring, sixth in yards per game, seventh in rushing yardage. It performed well on third down, but consistency faltered. Quarterbacks Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard split the fan base. Mark Weisman, despite his experience and Iowa’s favorable schedule, did not rank in the top half of league running backs. As a group, Iowa’s receivers should have been more potent. The play of left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff was a highlight, as were nice overall showings against Indiana and Northwestern, but Iowa could have been much more efficient with the football.

Defense: C-plus

Again, it was an average showing that should have been better. Yes, the Hawkeyes faced a difficult task in replacing three excellent linebackers. And Quinton Alston did his job well in the middle, as did Louis Trinca-Pasat on the interior, and end Drew Ott. Desmond King's all-conference or better season never quite materialized at cornerback, though. And more than individual performance, Iowa’s defense fizzled when the Hawkeyes needed it most -- in the second halves against Iowa State, Maryland and Nebraska, and from the start against Minnesota and Tennessee.

Special teams: D

Iowa ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in net punting and opponent's yards-per-punt return. It fared slightly better in covering and returning kickoffs, though still well below average. Marshall Koehn did a nice job on field goals, hitting 12 of 16, including a 52-yarder late in the third quarter of a 24-20 win at Pitt. The Hawkeyes scored on blocked punts against Northwestern and Nebraska, but neither play was game-defining.

Coaching: C-minus

The handling of the quarterback situation alone earns a demerit for head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Uncertainty throughout the season left the Hawkeyes seemingly uncertain about how to feel about their offensive leader for most of the season. Beyond that, there was little to inspire great feelings of hope from 2014 -- on the field or the sidelines.

Overall: C-minus

The grades on this report card are about as boring as possible -- and for a reason. They resemble the apparent direction of the Iowa program. The Hawkeyes feel a bit stale; they need an infusion of energy. Perhaps it will come from Ferentz’s decision to shake up the start of the offseason with the release of a depth chart that features Beathard over Rudock. (Hey, it’s a start.) Regardless, 2014 will be remembered at Iowa largely for its unrealized opportunities.

Offseason to-do list: Iowa

January, 20, 2015
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With the 2014 season behind us, we’re taking a look forward by offering three items each Big Ten team must address in the coming months. Up next is the Iowa Hawkeyes.

1. Snap out of the doldrums: Any way you deliver the spin, the past five months were a disappointment for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Iowa entered 2014 with the look of a favorite to win the West Division, buoyed by a favorable schedule. It limped to the finish, losing five of seven -- a stretch capped by a second-half collapse at home against Nebraska and a bad loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Hawkeyes looked like a tired program, struggling with turnover margin and to find hidden yards on special teams. Ferentz felt compelled to clear the air with a January news conference. The coach defended his record, often referencing his program’s resiliency in his 16 seasons, and vowed to focus more of his own energy on offseason workouts. In the end, he talked a lot but did little to relieve concerns. Only a re-energized performance next fall can turn the tide.

2. Pick a quarterback: What, you say, the Hawkeyes did just that in releasing a postseason depth chart that lists rising junior C.J. Beathard ahead of senior Jake Rudock? Not so fast. Iowa’s quarterback situation remains a major source of worry after Beathard seemingly surpassed the two-year starter Rudock by playing the majority of the snaps in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The playing-time split was debated all season, with Rudock starting all but the Sept. 27 win against Purdue. That the more-mobile Beathard took the top spot for the offseason means little. After all, the Hawkeyes don’t play for nearly eight months. Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis have displayed more confidence in Rudock. He offers less risk. Is Iowa ready to step out on a ledge at quarterback?

3. Find new playmakers: Cornerback Desmond King and defensive end Drew Ott return, along with running back Jordan Canzeri and receiver Tevaun Smith as proven cornerstone types. But Iowa loses a lot. Defensively, tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis formed one of the league’s best pairs. Quinton Alston at middle linebacker, and Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Brandon Scherff were a big part of Iowa’s success. And when the Hawkeyes needed yardage, they usually went to back Mark Weisman and receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Athletic linebacker Reggie Spearman is transferring. Others must step into key roles. Ferentz is fond of portraying Iowa as a blue-collar bunch that won’t often show up with more talent than its opponent. A hard-working group is good, but Iowa needs to develop what talent it has in the system.

Big Ten morning links

January, 15, 2015
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Good morning, fans of the conference that's home to the national champs. That's fun to say.

1. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz held an unusual, mid-January news conference on Wednesday because "it was just my sense that we needed to talk." Ferentz understands the negativity around the program after a very disappointing season, and he vowed to do something about it.

His proposed repairs might not be exactly what Hawkeyes fans want, as Ferentz doubled down on his team's offensive scheme and pledged to keep his staff intact (though some roles could change). Instead, Ferentz promised to get more active personally in the film room, something he said suffered a bit as he worked to raise funds for Iowa's facilities upgrade.

This was basically Ferentz saying he planned to roll up his sleeves and get to work, quite possibly armed with a new starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard. There's still not really much outside pressure on the man going into his 17th season as the head Hawkeye because of his massive contract. But it's good to know that the competitive fire still burns inside Ferentz and that he recognizes that things have to get better.

Everything is on the table for Ferentz and Iowa this offseason.

2. Nebraska added a big recruit on Wednesday, both literally and figuratively. Offensive lineman Jalin Barnett (from Lawton, Okla.) is 300 pounds and wears size 18 shoes, which must be a problem at the bowling alley. He's also ranked No. 43 in the ESPN 300 and had offers from all kinds of major schools, including his home-state Sooners, so it's quite the coup for new coach Mike Riley and his staff. My big question on the Riley hire was whether he would have the national recruiting presence necessary to succeed at Nebraska. It's too early to say one way or another, but Barnett's commitment is a great sign for Huskers fans.

3. Missed this from earlier in the week, but Minnesota's governor wants to ban all football kickoffs that happen before noon local time. Neither the governor nor Big Ten member schools have any say in this, of course, because kickoff times are dictated by TV. And the league is richly rewarded by its TV partners, so it has to take the good and the bad.

Still, he's on to something, because 11 a.m. is simply too early for a football game and much, much too early for a proper tailgate. The Big Ten loves its noon ET window on Saturdays, but as the league grows its presence to the East, it would be nice if the conference and its TV partners could throw the schools in the Central Time Zone a bone by letting them have more later start times.

West Division
East Division
The first change came last week as Iowa released a postseason depth chart featuring a new starter at quarterback. Then came Wednesday's news conference with coach Kirk Ferentz, another deviation from the script.

As my friend and longtime Iowa beat writer Marc Morehouse writes, "The regular routine for the last 16 years has been bowl game, radio silence through January and then a news conference on signing day."

Would Wednesday usher in a new chapter for Iowa football? There were even rumors that Ferentz would resign or finally head to the NFL, which the coach quickly dismissed, saying, "This is where I like coaching. This is what I like doing."

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY SportsCoach Kirk Ferentz said that C.J. Beathard will be Iowa's No. 1 quarterback heading into spring practice.
(C'mon, people. Why would Ferentz ever walk away from this contract?)

Still, there was hope among many that change would come for a seemingly stale program coming off of a very disappointing 7-6 season. After a breakthrough 2009 season culminating with an Orange Bowl win and Ricky Stanzi's unforgettable pearl of patriotism -- "If you don't love it, leave it" -- there hasn't been much to love about the Hawkeyes, who since are 34-30 overall (19-21 in the Big Ten).

After listening to Ferentz, it's hard to pinpoint what changes will be made and if any will dramatically affect the program. It's hard to glean much out of Wednesday's gathering. Midway through the news conference, Ferentz was asked why he had called it.

"It's just my sense is we needed to talk," he said, "so it's as simple as that."

Ferentz was candid about several topics, including his own need to spend more time on football matters. His external obligations increased in recent years as Iowa had to raise funds for its new football operations facility, a long overdue upgrade that is now complete.

"I've got to ... spend more time in the building with our people and less time on the outside," Ferentz said. "We built the building, that is good news. Not that I disliked fundraising, but I need to spend more time in here and watch more film."

There also could be tweaks to Iowa's offensive structure. Don't get too excited, Hawkeye fans -- "We're probably not going to be a spread team or a run 'n shoot team," Ferentz said -- but Ferentz talked about studying the Green Bay Packers' scheme. So that's something. Maybe.

Iowa also will see a new No. 1 quarterback when it begins spring practice, as C.J. Beathard leapfrogged Jake Rudock on the two-deep. Ferentz was careful not to lay the blame for Iowa's embarrassing bowl performance on Rudock, but competition at quarterback ramped up after the regular season.

Beathard has inched ahead.

"It's very, very close between the two of them," Ferentz said. "What we believe gives us the best chance to move forward right now is to give C.J. a chance to be the starting quarterback."

So Iowa might have a new quarterback and a more dynamic offense. Or it might not. The season opener Sept. 5 is a long way off.

"There are some things that are going to look different," Ferentz said. "I don't know how dramatic they'll be."

The types of changes fans often want after a season like Iowa's likely aren't coming. Ferentz isn't firing any assistants, although some could leave for other positions. The offense won't be overhauled. Ferentz said the Hawkeyes "just don't have the access to some of the personnel that some of those folks do that are running the points up."

There are plenty of non-traditional powers in challenging recruiting locations that successfully run fast-paced, spread offenses, but OK.

"Before we change anything, we want to make sure we're making the right changes," Ferentz said. "There is no sense to change things just to change things."

Ferentz is right, but certain things need to shift to get this program back on the upswing. Those decisions ultimately rest with the head coach, who delivered some cringe-worthy lines Wednesday.

  • "I'm coaching the way I did in 1999."
  • "We'll evaluate it our own way. It's different than other people."
  • "I'm basically here just to restate what I said 16 years ago and have said on and off between December of 1998 until now."

Ferentz had more late-90s references Wednesday than a VH1 flashback show. Iowa fans understand how the program has evolved since Ferentz took over. They appreciate what he's done. But they want and deserve better results from one of the highest-paid coaches in college football.

The most successful programs always have tension within. You think Urban Meyer will sit back now that Ohio State won a national championship? He'll push even harder.

Iowa needs some degree of tension from a coach whose cushy contract, once viewed as a security blanket for the program against NFL suitors, now seems more like a straitjacket.

"Maybe it's a good thing we've won seven games and we're considering this a low period," Ferentz said.

It's a very good thing, and an important realization for Ferentz. How much actually changes with the program this year is up to him.

One item had better change. The wins total.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill smiled one of those you-gotta-be-kidding-me smiles.

It was the morning after Ohio State had reclaimed college football's throne, winning its first national title -- and the Big Ten's first -- since the 2002 season. Urban Meyer had led Ohio State back to the top in just his third season. Naturally, the conversation turned to the future and what the Buckeyes' championship meant for the rest of the Big Ten.

Did Ohio State raise the bar?

"They've raised the bar for a long time," Kill said, chuckling. "And Urban's raised the bar. Just look at their players."

Ohio State has been the Big Ten's pace-setter for the past 15 years. And fairly or unfairly, the Buckeyes bore the brunt of the blame for the league's big-stage struggles after consecutive double-digit losses in the BCS title game following the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Big Ten then entered arguably the darkest period in its history, struggling both on the field and off of it.

Which team would ultimately begin the reputation repair? Ohio State, of course. The Buckeyes were the only Big Ten team to even reach the title game during the BCS era (Nebraska was in the Big 12 when it got there after the 2001 season). Ohio State won six BCS bowl games (one later vacated); the other current Big Ten teams combined for seven BCS bowl wins (one vacated by Penn State).

Other Big Ten teams have come close to the title game. Michigan State was a few bad calls away from an undefeated regular season in 2013. Penn State appeared to be on its way in 2008, and Iowa entered the national discussion the following year. Still, Ohio State has been the only Big Ten program to reach the mountaintop. And the Buckeyes could stay there in 2015 as they return a team loaded with star power on both sides of the ball.

But they can't be alone in the playoff push.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know my fundamental theory about the league, but it's worth restating, even in the wake of an image-boosting championship and a strong bowl performance. The Big Ten ultimately needs multiple national title contenders every year to be regarded as an elite conference. It's what stood out about the SEC's historic run: four different teams won national championships. The SEC isn't just Alabama. The Pac-12 isn't just Oregon.

Ohio State should be in the playoff mix every year that Meyer coaches. Will the Buckeyes have company?

Michigan State is clearly the next program to watch. The Spartans have recorded consecutive top-5 finishes with major bowl wins (2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton). They finished in the top 10 in the major bowls in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1965-66.

Quarterback Connor Cook returns for his senior season and could cement himself as the best signal-caller in team history. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun also will be back to anchor a strong front four. Although MSU loses talented defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, it maintains continuity by promoting longtime assistants Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett to co-coordinator roles.

It also has a nationally elite coach in Mark Dantonio.

"We're just not that far away," Dantonio said on the Big Ten Network while attending the national title game. "A lot of teams are like that. Not that far away. If you look a little bit further into the future, you can dream big and great things can happen. That's where our football team is. I think we're in the conversation."

Who else from the Big Ten could enter that discussion?

Wisconsin isn't far away. The Badgers bring in elite talent at positions like running back and offensive line. They have a terrific defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, who will remain on staff with new coach Paul Chryst. Wisconsin must make upgrades at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back. Chryst's presence will help the quarterbacks, and the return of assistant Joe Rudolph should help recruiting.

Penn State has fewer recruiting challenges than Wisconsin and will bring in elite talent under coach James Franklin. The defense is in good shape under the watch of coordinator Bob Shoop. The offense will improve as line depth improves. Penn State has some big steps to take, but no team other than Virginia Tech pushed Ohio State more than the Lions. Things are on the upswing in Happy Valley.

Since 2006, Michigan has looked nothing like a playoff team. Jim Harbaugh could change that at a place that always has the potential to be great. There's debate among opposing coaches about how much talent is already in the program, but Harbaugh's ability to develop current players will be fascinating. You know he and his assistants will flourish in recruiting.

Like Michigan, Nebraska has the resources and tradition to be elite. Like Wisconsin, Nebraska also has some inherent recruiting challenges. Mike Riley's approaches with both player development and recruiting will be worth watching. The glory days of the mid-1990s likely are never coming back, but Nebraska should be a periodic CFP contender.

Iowa has shown the capability to be elite under Kirk Ferentz, but the program is trending down. Ferentz could course-correct -- he has done so before -- and make Iowa a periodic contender, but not an annual one.

It's up to these teams to ensure the Big Ten's title hopes aren't always placed in the Buckeye basket. The league could have a surprise riser in some seasons -- perhaps Minnesota, where Kill has done well -- but can't expect one annually.

Bottom line: The Big Ten has enough capable options to become more than a one-horse race.

"Top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference," Meyer said Tuesday, "but it's moving."

Coaches like to talk about getting population to the football. The Big Ten wants population in the playoff discussion.

Ohio State could use some company at the summit.

"Hopefully," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "it will be an incredible motivator for everybody in our league."

Big Ten morning links

January, 9, 2015
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Hiring new coaches is hard. Changes in college football are always a gamble, and often don’t work out well for the man rolling the dice.

According to an ongoing series in the Omaha World-Herald, there have been 146 coaches hired by Power 5 schools since 2001. Less than half of them put together a better winning percentage than their predecessor. Thursday they released an in-depth look at all the Big Ten coaching changes during that time frame.

There are dozens of variables outside of a new coach’s control that determine how successful he and his staff will be at a school. It’s almost impossible to predict what forces will shape their tenure. That’s why it’s so important to hold on for dear life when you find a combination that works. A handful of Big Ten schools have stepped up financially during a busy offseason to try to compete successful staffs in place or usher in a new group in hope of change. On Thursday, Penn State made a big statement in opening the piggy bank to keep defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from jumping to the SEC.

Other schools that stepped up the coaching roulette wheel last month are starting to plug the holes they opened with change. Nebraska is almost done filling out Mike Riley’s new staff. Michigan officially announced its new defensive coordinator. Michigan State filled its only vacancy on defense. Wisconsin added some familiar faces. And Illinois fired two of its assistants in hopes of sparking some change.

‘Tis the season for change. If history holds, more of those moves will fail than succeed, but fans of the Big Ten conference should be happy to see their schools bucking up to find solutions or hang on to them.

Speaking of coaches, no one in the country has made a more impactful hire in the past five years that Ohio State bringing in Urban Meyer. With the Buckeyes only a few days away from competing for a national championship, many believe Meyer deserves the title of the best coach in the country. A win over Oregon on Monday would lock up that spot, according to FOX Sports’ Stewart Mandel. Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post writes that Meyer has claimed that title mostly because of the confidence he inspires in his players.

In other Buckeye news:
And now on to the rest of the Big Ten links:

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