Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

A year ago at this time Gary Nova did not want to talk about football.

The Rutgers quarterback and team captain, who had not played in the last two games of the 2013 regular season, had just learned he would be watching the team’s appearance at the Pinstripe Bowl from the sideline as well. The night he was officially benched, his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson, returned to their apartment to find Nova despondent.

Johnson knew this drill. He picked up food and rented a movie. They burrowed in, and he steered conversation toward more pleasant topics. Under no circumstance did he mention anything to do with football.

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsGary Nova holds the Rutgers record for TD passes (71) and needs 310 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program's all-time leading passer.
"He came home in tears," Johnson said. "We just tried to get his mind off of it. The next day we told him to refocus his energy on getting his spot back."

Nova didn’t play in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he did win back his spot during offseason workouts. He started all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights (7-5) this year during their first Big Ten season. He set the school’s career record for touchdown passes (currently 71) in late September and needs 310 yards against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program’s all-time leading passer. Nova has no problem talking football during this bowl season.

A year of ups and downs -- there were a few significant speed bumps even after he returned to the starting lineup -- is nothing new for Nova. He is one interception away from setting the Rutgers’ career mark in that category, too. His 40 starts swing like a pendulum between emotional highs and lows, fourth-quarter comebacks mixed with scathing reviews and the occasional social media threat. It’s a ride he says he would not have managed without the support of longtime teammates and his nearby family.

"It was tough when you had people booing, or you read stuff in the paper that’s about yourself," Nova said. "My teammates have been a great help. ... They just tried to give me that pat on the back and say, 'Hey don’t listen to that. You know what the people who really matter think.'"

Nova’s first taste of the zany twists and turns of college football came before he arrived on campus. The New Jersey native originally committed to be a part of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class. He visited Rutgers, 20 miles from his home in Elmwood Park, only out of respect for former coach Greg Schiano. But when the Panthers rolled through three head coaches in less than two months that winter, Nova opted for the more stable situation close to home.

Being close to his parents and his two brothers provided a much-needed place to vent during his career. Nova drove home just about every other weekend during his first year on campus. Johnson usually tagged along to spell his own homesickness and a fill up of Daisy Nova’s Dominican cooking. That duo escaped to Elmwood often enough during their time at Rutgers that the family put Johnson’s photo on the refrigerator as an honorary brother. Nova still asks pesky reporters to steer clear of his family members. They are his getaway, untainted by talk of football.

The frequency of those trips picked up last December as Nova stewed on the scout team during bowl prep.

"Not getting first-team reps and then watching the game from the sideline, I let all of that emotion boil up inside of me and used it to drive me through the tough days in the summer," he said.

Johnson said Nova turned into the team’s biggest leader during winter workouts. His doubled-down work ethic and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen gave Nova a fresh start.

In their first meeting, Friedgen told Nova he knew all about his reputation for inconsistency. He told the senior he didn’t care, that he wanted to give him a clean slate. They started with basics, learning about defensive coverages rather than Rutgers’ playbook. Friedgen preached about fundamental ways to read a defense that he assumed someone had already taught Nova. No one had, and Nova started to see the field more clearly.

When the senior threw five interceptions and was booed on his home field in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut, a 13-10 loss to Penn State, Friedgen was the first to give Nova a hug and tell him that he still believed in him. The ebbs and flows that have plagued his career continued to pop up occasionally this season, but Friedgen and Nova’s teammates remained firmly behind. Stay strong, they told him, all’s well that ends well. And with Nova, even when things start poorly, they have a history of ending well.

Nova refused to go to school some days as a high school freshman. His parents enrolled him at Don Bosco Prep, a private all-boys school 20 minutes from home. It was a different crowd and a different culture. His grades suffered. He was miserable. Eventually, football helped him assimilate.

It was there that he met Rutgers’ leading receiver Leonte Caroo, who has been his teammate for six of the past seven years and another steady crutch to lean on in bad times. They went 24-0 and won two state titles for one of the best high school teams in the nation during Nova’s two years as a starter. That is when his mother started to tell him he was a natural born "overcomer."

"I didn’t see the bigger picture at such a young age," Nova said. "But I’m glad I stuck with it."

The same pattern of tumult followed by triumph continues to play out for Nova in macro and micro ways. The crazy offseason at Pitt led him to stay at home where he found the support he needed. His benching last November motivated him to win a starting job.

On the field, he has engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks during his career, which ties him for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. His most recent addition to that list came in a 41-38 comeback against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to wrap up the regular season. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 25 points late in the second quarter before three touchdown passes from Nova opened the door for the biggest comeback in the program’s 145 years.

"Gary has done a lot in his career at Rutgers and he will go down as one of the all-time greats even before playing this game," head coach Kyle Flood told reporters after the victory. "Does this game add to his legacy? Of course it adds to it, but I don't think it defines Gary. I think it's a great example of what he is and what he has done for this program."

Memories of last year’s bowl season still linger for Nova in the wake of that comeback win. He has one more pendulum to swing in the right direction before he leaves.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 14

November, 29, 2014
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Lessons learned after the final week of the Big Ten’s regular season.

1. J.T. Barrett is as cool as they come: Ohio State’s star quarterback stepped into the limelight with an ultracalm demeanor this season, but his reaction to a season-ending and cringe-worthy broken ankle Saturday showed how unfazed he can be. Barrett showed little, if any, emotion while being carted off the field in the fourth quarter of a 42-28 win over Michigan. He shook hands with a few teammates and told them to go win the game, which they did. Can they keep winning with Barrett already ruled out for next weekend’s Big Ten title game? The offense will undoubtedly take a significant step backward without the Heisman contender. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for another before leaving the game Saturday. Ohio State has plenty of weapons to keep its offense rolling, but good luck finding another signal-caller who has the presence to step in like Barrett has done during his rookie season.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin's win over Minnesota.
 2. Wisconsin is your new Big Ten favorite: The Badgers' offense, led of course by Melvin Gordon, has been one of the hardest to stop in the country during the month of November. Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin’s 34-24 win over Minnesota. The victory clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. Cardale Jones, Barrett’s replacement, has to face a stingy Badgers defense for his first career start. It won’t be easy for the sophomore to keep up with Wisconsin’s offense if Gordon keeps rolling. As impossible as it may have seemed after they lost to Northwestern on the first weekend in October, the 10-2 Wisconsin Badgers could be the favorite to win the conference championship.

3. The Spartan Dawgs haven’t fallen very far: Michigan State’s defense isn’t as dominant as the Rose Bowl-winning crew from a year ago. Ohio State made that much clear in early November. The 2014 unit can still dominate, though. Since giving up 49 points to the Buckeyes, Michigan State has allowed a total of 28 points in three games against Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State. Those three teams rushed for an average of 46 yards. None of those teams will be confused for an offensive juggernaut this season (although the Terps have shown flashes), but the Spartans can still make an average football team look hopeless when trying to reach the end zone.

4. Beckman, Pelini turn down the heat: Bo Pelini won’t be getting free meals in Lincoln this offseason, and the same goes for Tim Beckman in Champaign, but both coaches at least temporarily sidestepped the angry mobs with wins this weekend. Illinois hung 47 points on Northwestern to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in Beckman’s three years. His teams have gone from two to four to six wins, and he’s already promised eight in 2015. Pelini avoided the dreaded fourth loss with a comeback overtime win over Iowa on Friday. If the Cornhuskers can win whatever bowl game they play, they will finish with a 10-3 record, which is at least a small step forward.

5. Rutgers-Maryland has the makings of a Big Ten rivalry: The Big Ten might have built itself a new rivalry Saturday, and the league didn’t even need a patriotic trophy or pregame handshake shenanigans to do it. Rutgers completed the biggest comeback in school history to pick up its seventh win in its first year in the Big Ten. The two conference newcomers finish with identical 7-5 records and seem to be programs on similar footing. The Terps led 35-10 late in the first half at Byrd Stadium before Gary Nova stormed back with his 347 passing yards and four touchdowns. Now that’s how to develop some bad blood.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 6

October, 4, 2014
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Three teams take a break this weekend as we approach the midway point of the 2014 season. There are still plenty of intriguing narratives to follow in the five Big Ten showdowns Saturday. The conference expansion teams get a chance to prove themselves against traditional league powers. The early leader for the Big Ten’s best playoff contender also will be made clear by the end of the night.

It’s time to find out how much wheat lies among the chaff this season (all times Eastern).

Noon games

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteCan Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes get a road win against Big Ten newcomer Maryland?
No. 20 Ohio State (3-1) at Maryland (4-1), ABC: The Buckeyes make their second trip to the Old Line State this season, this time to open conference play against newcomer Maryland. The Terps have one of the league's most explosive offenses and have proved they can bring more than just the metro-area television audience to the Big Ten. Ohio State and its freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will be their toughest test to date.

Purdue (2-3) at Illinois (3-2), ESPN2: Illini quarterback Wes Lunt has 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions through five games with his new team. Lunt & Co. probably need a win against the struggling Boilermakers on Saturday to feel good about their chances of reaching a bowl game at the end of the season.

Afternoon games

North Texas (2-2) at Indiana (2-2), 2:30, BTN: The Mean Green visit an Indiana team that had an up-and-down September. They wedged a major upset against Missouri between disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland. The Hoosiers' defense needs to find more consistency, but shouldn't have too much of an issue with a North Texas team that ranks 115th in total offense.

No. 17 Wisconsin (3-1) at Northwestern (2-2), 3:30, ESPN2: Pat Fitzgerald successfully installed some grit in his lineup last week, holding Penn State out of the end zone on the road. Can Northwestern hang with the more powerful Wisconsin offense in Evanston? Badgers running back Melvin Gordon had his way with opposing defenses in the team's past two victories.

Night games

Michigan (2-3) at Rutgers (4-1), 7:00, BTN: Playing football should be a welcome reprieve for Brady Hoke and his Michigan team after the week they had in Ann Arbor. Devin Gardner returns to quarterback for a Wolverines offense riddled with problems. Rutgers freshman defensive end Kemoko Turay should have a good opportunity to build on his one-sack-per-game average this season. Gardner will have to solve his turnover issues to get out of New Jersey with a win and help stop the bleeding.

No. 19 Nebraska (5-0) at No. 10 Michigan State (3-1), 8:00, ABC: In what could be the most important Big Ten game of the season, conference title and national playoff implications are at stake in East Lansing on Saturday night. The Spartans have won 18 of their past 20, and most of those have been double-digit victories. Nebraska, led by Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah, is the league's last chance for a perfect record. If the Huskers can get past Michigan State, an undefeated season becomes a much more realistic possibility.

Required reading

Rutgers football goes clubbing ... in ice

August, 7, 2014
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Stay out of the clubs.

Once the college football season begins -- as it has all around the country with the start of practices -- coaches want their players to focus on football and not the party life. But at Rutgers, at least, the coaches are bringing the party to the players.

Well, sort of.

At the end of the Scarlet Knights' first double practice session of the season this week, RU head coach Kyle Flood and his staff had a surprise for his exhausted players: A trip to Club Ice. Yes, Club Ice.



Here's another angle from the club of ice:

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 31, 2014
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Mere hours now until teams around the Big Ten hit the practice fields. We're answering questions daily here on the blog as the preseason gets underway. Got something for me? Send it here. The latest offerings:

 
Mitch Sherman: That's an excellent observation, Jay, and an aspect of the Scarlet Knights largely overlooked in this transition to the Big Ten. Rutgers has blocked 35 kicks over the past five seasons, nine more than any other FBS program, and it's consistently won the battle on special teams. While Kyle Flood, his staff and players must prepare for eight new league opponents this fall -- a tall task -- perhaps they can surprise a few foes with strong play in the kicking game. It's a powerful card to play; few plays in football change momentum like blocked kicks. Facing a brutal league schedule, Rutgers will likely get more aggressive than ever in going after kicks.

 
Mitch Sherman: Start with the schedule. Three of Purdue' five most difficult games -- against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa -- are at home. A fourth is to be played at a neutral site (perhaps better labeled off-campus) against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Ryan Russell is primed to enjoy a big senior season. Among a stacked group of Big Ten defensive ends, he is perhaps the most underrated. Seniors Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt possess legitimate speed. If Purdue can create space for them to run, the big-play threat is real. And while the quarterback spot is not entirely settled, Danny Etling showed real improvement toward the end of his true freshman season. Mark it down: the win total will rise from last year's one. I'll place the max figure at six, though four or five looks more likely.

 
Mitch Sherman: I'm not going to overthink this. It looks like Derrick Willies, and I think it will be Willies. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman starred in spring scrimmages. I expect his strong play to carry over to this season. Iowa features veterans in Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith, but none possess the athleticism of Willies. He may not start from the outset, but look for his playing time to increase as Willies shows his big-play potential. For quarterback Jake Rudock, the presence of a big target who can make plays on the ball provides a great comfort. If Willies emerges as expected, the Iowa offense -- already solid if not flashy -- gets an added dimension.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 25, 2014
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Welcome to another weekend, which means just four more remain until the return of college football. Thanks for all of your questions. Keep them coming and enjoy the latest mailbag:
Mitch Sherman: Derrick Green has battled weight problems previously. He entered camp last season at 240 pounds as the No. 5-rated back in the 2013 recruiting class and rushed for just 270 yards as a true freshman, averaging 3.3 yards per attempt. After the spring, he was reportedly down to 220, definitely a better figure.

It’ll be interesting to see how he looks when practice opens in Ann Arbor on Aug. 4. If Green shows up in great shape, he’s likely the man to beat in the battle for the bulk of the carries. Primary competition comes from fellow sophomore De'Veon Smith.

No doubt, Green is talented and dangerous when his body is right. But some of this remains out of his control. No back could have thrived behind Michigan’s porous offensive line last season. The Wolverines rushed for 125.7 yards per game, the third lowest average in school history. In back-to-back games against Michigan State and Nebraska, the line contributed to 14 sacks of U-M quarterbacks.

If the line doesn’t improve in 2014, Green could open the season in the best shape of his life, and it would matter little.
Mitch Sherman: Well, here it is. In theory, the idea to determine conferences based solely on football and its finances appears intriguing. In practice, it would be a logistical nightmare and destroy many of the sport’s natural alliances.

Still, don’t dismiss such a scenario as complete fantasy. The coming changes in college athletics could be landscape-altering, from the ramifications of the upcoming vote on major-conference autonomy to the court decision in the antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and its inevitable appeals.

It’s hard to imagine that the conferences will cease to exist as we know them. But then again, 10 years ago, who could have imagined the look of the game as we know it today?


Mike in Ashburn, Virginia, writes: If Rutgers beats Penn State, what would that mean for the future of RU football?

Mitch Sherman: Fans of the Scarlet Knights have long circled Sept. 13, when the traditional rivals meet in Piscataway, New Jersey. The game was scheduled in 2009 -- when former PSU assistant Greg Schiano coached Rutgers -- as a nonconference matchup, the first in the series since 1995.

Of course, when Rutgers announced plans to join the Big Ten, it was converted to a league game. Penn State and Rutgers last played in 1995, and the Nittany Lions have won 22 of 24 games in the series. So one victory by the Scarlet Knights over a Penn State program still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions won’t reverse the fortunes of the programs. PSU will still carry momentum in recruiting and possess an edge in areas, even New Jersey, that produce recruiting prospects for both schools.

A win by Rutgers, though, would serve notice that it’s here to play with the big boys in the Big Ten and won’t be pushed aside easily by powers of the league’s East Division -- on the field and in recruiting its fertile home state.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
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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 days preview: Rutgers

July, 22, 2014
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It's less than a week now until Big Ten media days arrive at the Hilton Chicago, where 14 smiling coaches will appear, and the smell of football will permeate the air. Can you feel the excitement?

To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.

1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?

Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.

2. Who made this schedule, anyway?

After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.

3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?

No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Maryland and Rutgers officially joined the Big Ten on Tuesday. That prompted celebrations in Piscataway, New Jersey, and College Park, Maryland, but more of a collective shoulder shrug elsewhere. One school's fan base seems particularly unhappy about the latest additions: Nebraska. So today's Take Two topic is this: Does Nebraska have a right to be unhappy about Maryland and Rutgers coming on board?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

You can sum up the displeasure of Huskers fans by simply pointing to Big Red's conference home schedule in 2014: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota. This is not the Big Ten that Nebraska backers thought they were joining back in 2011. They thought that leaving the Big 12 for Jim Delany's league meant plenty of games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Instead, they're in a division without any of those teams, and none of those three come to Lincoln before 2017 (when the Buckeyes visit Memorial Stadium). Was it really worth leaving the Big 12 for this?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsDoes Nebraska have a right to be unhappy about Maryland and Rutgers coming on board?
Of course, as Don Draper might say, "That's what the money is for." Then again, Nebraska doesn't receive a full share of the Big Ten's overflowing coffers until 2017, and the school couldn't have been happy to learn that Maryland would get a front-loaded deal that included much more cash right away for the Terps' strapped athletic department.

The Maryland and Rutgers move was aimed at opening up new territory for the Big Ten, to serve recruiting, future population growth and alumni along the East Coast. But as the westernmost school in the league, Nebraska stands to benefit far less from this expansion than other conference members. The Huskers haven't traditionally recruited a lot of players from the East Coast, and the school's alumni base isn't as large there as it is for other Big Ten teams.

Still, don't forget that the Big 12 was basically crumbling when Nebraska left. The Huskers will become far more financially secure in the Big Ten than they would have in the Big 12, especially when the league's huge new TV deal comes rolling in. Nebraska has been a good fit culturally in the Big Ten.

Yet I don't blame Cornhuskers supporters for being at least a little upset, especially given the scheduling distribution. The Big Ten's future parity scheduling should help a little, and hopefully a robust rivalry with Wisconsin will develop in the West Division, along with a growing interest in the Iowa series. Nebraska should enjoy what looks like a slightly easier path to the Big Ten title game every year (assuming the West Division remains less top heavy than the East), and the occasional Eastern exposure could help expand the school's brand and recruiting reach.

The Huskers actually need to win a Big Ten title in football before deciding the rest of the league is beneath them, after all. And if all else fails, Nebraska fans, remember this: at least you no longer have to mess with Texas.

Take 2: Mitch Sherman

Interesting, Brian, that you mention Texas, which still draws the ire of Nebraskans more than a lackluster slate of Big Ten home games ever could.

And the only thing as frustrating to Husker fans than Texas' hold on Nebraska from 2002 to 2010 -- six wins in six games for burnt orange -- is the Longhorns' 16-11 league record since the Huskers left for the Big Ten. Yes, Nebraska fans salivated over the sight of Texas as it hovered near .500 in Big 12 play in 2011 and 2012; they wanted nothing more than to kick UT while it was down.

In some convoluted way, perhaps, they blame the Big Ten for robbing the Huskers of that chance. Now, the entry of Maryland and Rutgers has taken from Nebraska the chance to kick Michigan while it's down -- something the Huskers, their fan base and their Ohio State-bred coach enjoyed in 2012 and 2013.

It's not that simple, though. If Ohio State or Iowa want to get nostalgic and hold a grudge against the Big Ten newbies for disrupting their fall festival, go for it. But Nebraska has no room to groan.

The Huskers landed in this league, way back in 2011, as an agent of change. The Big Ten secured Nebraska's financial future. Three years later, you might say the Huskers sold their soul to Delany. Sure, they're making lots of money and poised to make even more.

The football team continues to win nine games annually, but when is an October meeting with Rutgers or Maryland going to feel natural?

Look at a map. It's Nebraska, not the newcomers, that is most geographically isolated in the Big Ten. Delany planned all along that the addition of Nebraska marked only the start to his new era of change.

Did he sell the Huskers and their fans false hope, with the promise of every-other-season trips to the Big House and the renewal of a once-bitter rivalry with Penn State? Not anymore than Rutgers or Maryland wrecked it all.

This is an age of change in college athletics. More is coming, even if conference expansion has halted. Programs and their fan bases can't cling to the past. They can't cling to the present, either.

The opportunity exists to play Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State more often than the schedule dictates. Just win the West. One of them is likely to often await in the Big Ten championship game.

Maryland and Rutgers don't figure to soon disrupt any of those plans.
Maryland and Rutgers officially made the leap on Tuesday. In less than two months, they'll be playing football as members of the Big Ten.

We've been talking about this moment since November 2012. Rarely, have the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights been mentioned as contenders in their new league. But change comes fast in college football.

It could happen here, too. On this historic day as the Big Ten goes from 12 to 14, here are six reasons to believe that Maryland and Rutgers, as a pair and individually, can experience success in the Big Ten:
  • The Big Ten just isn't that good. You've heard about this, right? The league last played for a national championship seven years ago and hasn't won a title since January 2003. It has performed poorly of late against the major-conference competition and went 2-5 in bowls last season, though Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl – the Big Ten's second triumph in Pasadena since New Year's Day 2000. How does any of this impact Maryland and Rutgers, expected by many to finish 6-7 in the Big Ten East Division? It means no conference foe is unbeatable. It means there's hope.
  • For a while, at least, they're going to get noticed. Rutgers has long operated in the shadow of pro sports in its region, while Maryland football played second fiddle amid the ACC basketball buzz. The Big Ten figures to change some of that. The Terps have already benefited in recruiting from the move. Rutgers needs to capitalize on the attention to make a dent in a deep pool of New Jersey prep talent. You want excitement? Check out Rutgers' Big Ten opener, Sept. 13, when Penn State visits for the first meeting in the series since 1995. Expect Maryland's first Big Ten home game, three weeks later against Ohio State, to equally move the needle.
  • The Terps are trending up. Coach Randy Edsall took Maryland from a two-win team in 2011 to six in 2012 and seven last year. The Terrapins remained an average program in the ACC, but Edsall and his staff have begun to stack the pieces in place, notably on offense, to make a move in the Big Ten. For quarterback C.J. Brown, the time is now to make a mark in the new league. Brown, from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, is a dual threat who knows the Big Ten style. He works well with coordinator Mike Locksley, an innovative offensive mind. Meanwhile, Maryland's incoming class, bolstered by the impending move, ranked 50th nationally, featuring home grown star Damian Prince at offensive tackle.
  • Deon Long and Stefon Diggs are healthy. Diggs, a junior, and the senior Long form perhaps the best receiving duo in the Big Ten. Both wideouts suffered leg fractures on Oct. 19 in the Terps' 34-10 loss at Wake Forest. Long broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg; Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg, triggering a stretch of four Maryland losses in five games before a regular season-ending win at North Carolina State. Long and Diggs returned for spring practice and appear on track to torment even the best of secondaries in the Big Ten this fall.
  • Gary Nova is back at the helm. This could go either way, depending on whom you ask at Rutgers. But we say it's good for the Scarlet Knights to go through a transformation such as this in with a steady hand at quarterback. Nova has started 28 games and ranks third in school history with 51 touchdown throws. He was benched in favor of Chas Dodd after winning five of 10 starts in 2013, but Nova has won consistently, dating to his unbeaten days as a starter at Don Bosco Prep. To help his cause, Rutgers returns five starters on the offensive line and its top four rushers.
  • There's new energy on the Rutgers defense and strength up the middle. Joe Rossi, the 35-year Rutgers defensive coordinator promoted this offseason from special teams coach, offers a new start for a unit that endured struggles last season. Its strength comes against the run, which figures to suit Rutgers better in the Big Ten than it did in the AAC. And through the core of its defense, tackle Darius Hamilton, middle linebacker Kevin Snyder -- who switched spots with linebacker Steve Longa -- and safety Lorenzo Waters form a backbone of veteran leadership.

Video: Tim Pernetti out as AD at Rutgers

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
10:33
AM ET

Brett McMurphy discusses the ouster of Rutgers' athletic director Tim Pernetti following the firing of men's coach Mike Rice.
Big Ten athletic directors have a lot of decisions to make for the future, including the possibility of playing nine or even 10 conference home games per season starting in 2014. If the league does go that route, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has an idea.

"I would like to see more neutral sites in those scenarios," Smith told ESPN.com. "We've got a great stadium in Chicago, one in Detroit, one in Indianapolis, and now we have the East Coast. So I can see more neutral sites for conference games."

The idea wouldn't be totally new for the Big Ten. In 2010, there were two such neutral-site league games, as Indiana played Penn State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and Northwestern and Illinois met in Wrigley Field. The game between the Wildcats and Illini drew a lot of attention, though not always for the best reasons as the field dimensions didn't exactly turn out as expected.

The Big Ten also discussed the possibility of using NFL stadiums and even Major League Baseball parks for big events to kick off the season when the Pac-12 scheduling alliance was announced. With that alliance dead, perhaps the conference could generate some early season buzz instead with league games at such sites.

"Neutral sites are great; those are just great opportunities," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "They have to be in the right places and have the right matchups, but the fans have responded in a positive way to some of those neutral-site games. We need to listen to them and we need to pay attention to those things. We may not do everything that the fans want, but that’s what's made our game so great and more popular than it’s ever been."

The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the league in 2014 brings more possibilities, as the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights both have pro stadiums nearby. Rutgers played Army at MetLife Stadium in 2010, and in Yankee Stadium in 2011. The school reportedly received a $2.7 million payday for the 2010 game, nearly twice what it made in a typical home game.

The finances are tough to ignore. Rutgers' High Point Solutions Stadium seats about 53,000, and Maryland's Byrd Stadium has a capacity of about 54,000. How much more money could those two cash-strapped athletic programs make if, say, Rutgers played Michigan in MetLife (capacity: 82,500) or the Terps moved a home game against Ohio State to FedEx Field (91,700)? Indiana's "home game" against Penn State at the Redskins' stadium let the Hoosiers pocket an extra $2 million.

But teams also have to weigh that cash infusion against the loss of some home-field advantage and potentially angering their most loyal customers. And let's be honest: teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State never have to worry about giving up a home game, so neutral site conference games benefit them.

"We are definitely open to that conversation, because it does a couple of things," Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti told ESPN.com. "From a business perspective, it gives us an opportunity to generate a much more significant amount of revenue on a one-game basis. For our opponent, especially the ones with big alumni bases in this region, it gives them the opportunity to have access to more seats.

"But it's not something we're going to get in the habit of doing. I think when the schedule allows the opportunity to do it, maybe once every three-to-five years, we'd consider doing that. But I think the most important thing is to deliver the best games and the best atmospheres on our campus."

A lot of ideas will be tossed around by league athletic directors in the next several months. We'll see if neutral-site conference games gains much traction.
Rutgers doesn't join the Big Ten until July 2014, but the Scarlet Knights can't wait to get started as a league member. Unlike Maryland, there was no hesitancy among fans or administrators to join the conference, and the school had billboards celebrating its Big Ten membership ready to go hours before it became official.

I recently caught up with Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti to ask about his program's readiness for the move. Pernetti, who played for the Scarlet Knights and spent time as a television executive, says his fans are in "a frenzy" about leaving the Big East for the Big Ten.

What does joining the Big Ten do for your football program?

Tim Pernetti: I think it does a lot of different things, all positive things. We've already started to feel the positive effects of this in recruiting, in the visibility of the program. I think we're an excellent fit in the Big Ten even from a style standpoint, the way you see football played in the league. But I also think that it's going to give us the ability to be a really good league member off the bat, to be able to help deliver -- as Jim [Delany] said -- that bridge to the East Coast, to be able to help build the brand in the region. I've always felt strongly that this market, where we sit, is a totally unclaimed market when it comes to college sports. And it's got a real opportunity for someone who approaches it strategically the right way. There's a lot of eyeballs and a lot of revenue and a lot of ad and sponsorship dollars and opportunity in the market.

[+] EnlargeRutgers' Tim Pernetti
Patti Sapone/USA TODAY Sports"I think we're an excellent fit in the Big Ten even from a style standpoint, the way you see football played in the league," Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti said.
There are a lot of Big Ten alumni in the New York/New Jersey area. How much have you heard from them since this move became official?

TP: We've heard from a lot of those people. Look, it's hard to target this stuff, but we've gotten thousands of deposits from people who have never had season tickets here before, and I'd venture to guess that some of those people are probably Big Ten fans from other schools.

I've been to your campus and know your facilities are very good. What types of infrastructural things do you think you need to improve to be ready for the Big Ten in 2014?

TP: I think in a lot of ways, we're priced to move and ready to go. From a football standpoint, we've done an excellent job of creating some real state-of-the-art facilities. We expanded our stadium three years ago to 53,000, and we're in very good shape there. Obviously, there are always things you want to get done.

Our No. 1 priority, and it really was a priority prior to the Big Ten coming and remains so, is the RAC, the Rutgers Athletic Center where we primarily play basketball. It's over 30 years old and is in need of a massive overhaul, which will include construction of new practice facilities, strength and conditioning, treatment and training, academic support, a training table, etc. And a renovation of the game arena, centered around technology. It's a $30 million project that we've been fundraising for. We're a little more than a third of the way there. This building houses 19 of our 24 sports, so that one is really, really important. … But the ramp-up period will give us the ability to get some of these things done in advance so we're ready to go when we enter the league.

The football team had a strong year in 2012. How ready do you think you will be to compete for, say, a league or division title right away?

TP: I think that we will definitely be prepared to enter the league and compete right away. And I think that recruiting is only going to get better in the Big Ten. You look at the rosters for football, and there are a lot of student-athletes at different Big Ten schools that are from New Jersey. I think the ability to compete in the Big Ten and compete at the highest level and stay in New Jersey is going to be a very attractive opportunity for a lot of recruits.

We feel like this program has been built by a lot of people over an extended period of time, and we feel like we're going to be ready as a football program to compete right away. That's the most exciting part of it. The best part is also stability. I don't have to deal any more with questions about what's going to happen with the conference. "Where is Rutgers going to end up?" And I said for several years, that with all our assets we were going to end up in a good place, and I'm sure people wondered what I was thinking. But that's what I really believed, and that's where we are. And now we can get away from that chaos and actually deal with building and moving forward.

You mentioned recruiting. A lot of Big Ten schools are excited to gain a foothold in the New Jersey area. Do you worry about more competition for prospects?

TP: I think the competition is the best part of what we do. If you worry about competition, you shouldn't be doing this at all. I said on the day when we announced the relationship with the Big Ten, I think our obligation as a new member is not only to bring value and introduce the Big Ten into this region as it undergoes growth and Eastern orientation, but I think it's equally as important to embrace the competition. I'm sure, that as we went through the conversations about the Big Ten, that a lot of their coaches were salivating about the opportunity to have more of a presence recruiting in this area, because we have produced in the state of New Jersey so many great student-athletes at the highest levels of multiple sports.

But we have kept the best players at home more and more in the past few years. You know, Anthony Davis, who will be playing in the Super Bowl in a few weeks, we beat Ohio State for him. Then there's Savon Huggins and Darius Hamilton. We've been competing with the Big Ten. I think the misperception is that you only compete within your league with recruiting, but we've recruited with national programs, including every Big Ten school, Notre Dame, you go down the list. That's kind of the neighborhood we've been playing in, and we intend to stay there.

Penn State makes a natural rival right away, and Maryland is a potential one. What about other rivalries in the league and how they might develop?

TP: Rivalries, they've got to grow organically. I think sometimes fans and the media, with all due respect, they kind of push the rivalries. But if they don't grow organically, its tough to sort of make them happen because you want to make them happen. When I played at Rutgers, Penn State was always a rival. It was a great game. We used to go there every year and play them and go back and forth. It was always something our fans looked forward to and it was always circled on our schedule. And I think that's going to be great to have back on our docket on an annual basis, because our fans are accustomed to it. So that will be terrific. It will probably already be the No. 1 rivalry for us right now, before we even play a game in the league. That's the way our fans look at it, that Penn State is always our top rival.

We've had some great competition against Maryland. That's been a little more sporadic on our schedule, but that will be one that's excellent for us. The hardest part about where we've been in the Big East is, we never really had that one [rivalry] that jumped off the page for you. I think right away, Penn State has and will continue to, and I think the Maryland thing has a real opportunity for us. And from there, whatever evolves, evolves, and I think that's based on a lot of good, close games over a period of years.

Will your fans need time to get used to the traditions of the Big Ten?

TP: Our fan base is ready to go. I don't think they're looking for any kind of getting-to-know-you period. They kind of know these programs from afar, but they're excited about competing in this league and all the great assets the Big Ten brings -- the stability, certainly the financial resources, all the academic collaborations. Our fans totally get it. And I don't think there are any fans in the country who have spent more time on conference expansion than Rutgers fans. This is a great thing to be able to deliver for them, but I don't think there will be a whole lot of learning curve. We'll introduce the league to our traditions and we'll learn theirs and away we go.

How involved will you be with decisions on division alignment, scheduling and those sorts of issues?

TP: The neat thing about the new affiliation with the Big Ten is that almost instantly, within a week after the announcement, we started to receive schedules of future meeting, invites to future meetings, invites to conference calls. Our coaches have been on conference calls, our administrators have been on calls. I've been included on the last two AD calls. And it's not to just sit in the background and listen. Jim does a terrific job of framing the issue and literally goes down the line and gets input from every single school. I've really enjoyed my interactions thus far with this group. It's a really hard-working, smart, strategic-thinking group. We've got a lot of big things ahead of us, but so far so good, and we have been included on everything. ... We don't have a vote [until 2014] but we've been given an opportunity to provide as much input as anybody else.

The prospect of Michigan, Ohio State, etc., coming to your stadium in the near future, how exciting is that?

TP: Oh, it's great. Even from my seat. I'm so excited about those games, mainly because it's going to give us an opportunity to deliver a lot of great settings and a lot of great matchups for all of our fans. We had Penn State scheduled already for 2014, and from the day we announced that the buzz has just been through the roof about Penn State coming to campus. Now the prospect of that happening every other year, and the prospect of a lot of the Big Ten institutions coming every other year, it's got our fans in just a frenzy. So we're pretty pumped up about it.

Finally, there's been a lot of talk about the New York City market. Some see it as the Holy Grail. Others say that's overrated because it is a pro sports town. With your TV background, what are your thoughts on what the Big Ten can gain by getting into that market?

TP: Well, I think the market is ripe for the taking. And while you do have a lot of distractions in the market with professional teams, we have proven especially as we have had more and more success in football -- you know there are a lot of claims about who is the college team in New York -- I just point people to the ratings over the last several years. Because they speak for themselves. The viewership that Rutgers has been able to deliver in the market, I think it's indicative that there's a college football audience that's passionate and loves their college football in this market.

For years, when I worked in programming at ABC, I used to sit there and decide which games we were going to put on in which region. And there was never a great, ironclad blueprint for New York City. So we always just used to put the Big Ten on in New York, because it had the biggest following in the market, and it always delivered really solid numbers. So I think the market is definitely there for the taking. It's just that we have to do a really good job as a conference of educating people, building the brand, creating events, and then I think we'll have the ability to control it.

Rutgers sues Big East over exit fee

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
11:30
AM ET
First comes expansion. Then come the lawsuits.

The ACC has already sued Maryland to try and force the Terrapins to pay the entire league exit fee of more than $50 million before leaving for the Big Ten. And now Rutgers is suing the Big East over its exit fee, colleague Andrea Adelson reports.

The Scarlet Knights are trying to get out of the Big East's more manageable but still pricey $10 million buyout, along with its mandated 27-month waiting period, so they can join the Big Ten by 2014.

Rutgers says in its law suit that the Big East fee "arbitrarily applies to some, but not all, of the Big East football schools, and the effect is to penalize certain members if they seek to withdraw." The league allowed Syracuse, Pittsburgh, TCU and West Virginia to leave for other conferences without waiting the required 27 months, and the lawsuit alleges that the Big East has failed to collect $39.5 million in withdrawal fees from those departing schools.

If Rutgers were not able to get out of the waiting period, it could not become a full Big Ten member until the summer of 2015. The school's athletic department also is dealing with some financial problems, so $10 million is not chump change to the Scarlet Knights right now.

It's hard to imagine how the Big East could enforce those penalties on Rutgers when it couldn't do so for previous schools that have left, however. I still believe Rutgers will be on board in the Big Ten for the 2014 season.

But first, lawsuit season will have to play out.

Video: Friday Four Downs

November, 23, 2012
11/23/12
1:00
PM ET

Brian Bennett takes a look at the Friday Four Downs in the Big Ten.

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