Big Ten: Trevor Siemian

Big Ten Media Days is nearly upon us. Just survive the weekend, and you'll get a full dose of coaches and players on Monday and Tuesday. As our time to preview the event winds to an end, here's a fearless forecast of what to expect from the Hilton Chicago:
  • Jim Delany will make news. The Big Ten commissioner almost certainly will not follow the lead of his Big 12 counterpart, Bob Bowlsby, who this week slammed the enforcement arm of the NCAA, saying it pays to cheat in college athletics. But Delany will address tough questions about the game in an up-front manner. He'll discuss the potential ramifications of the upcoming vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to grant autonomy to the five major conferences and the upcoming verdict in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Both events could alter the landscape of college football, which makes the opinion of Delany -- one of the game's top power brokers -- of high interest.
  • An awkward moment or two for the Northwestern players. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats chose to send a trio of seniors to this event. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian are smart guys. They'll be well equipped to answer questions about an offseason like no other at their school, highlighted by a late-April vote of players on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. Still, facing a large media throng, the players will get peppered with questions about the situation and the possibility that its fallout may linger as a distraction at their school for some time.
  • Randy Edsall will end his war of words with the ACC. Highly doubtful that the Maryland coach chooses to fire back at Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who defended the ACC after Edsall said he was pleased to make the jump to coach in a “football conference.” Edsall, speaking at lunch event in Baltimore on July 14, said he was “not in a basketball conference anymore.” In response, Swinney, at ACC Media Days, referenced the Tigers win over Ohio State to end last season in the Orange Bowl. “Aren't they in that conference?” Swinney said. There's not much more to say here, especially for a coach who went 13-24 in three seasons in the ACC. Oh, and who said the Big Ten's not a basketball league?
  • Connor Cook will charm the media. Michigan State's junior quarterback is known as a blue-collar guy, in step with Spartan style, who did just enough last season not to spoil the 13-1 MSU season capped with wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Cook is more than that. And the writers and broadcasters in Chicago may be in for a surprise to meet this quarterback now brimming with confidence as a result of his strong finish to 2013 and a productive offseason. I met Cook recently during the Elite 11 finals, at which he counseled the nation's top prep quarterbacks, and came away impressed with his poise and confidence.
  • Brandon Scherff will get asked to lift something heavy. And politely decline. What else can you expect in the wake of this recent video? Scherff possesses freakish strength. He would likely win a strongest-man competition among all Big Ten players. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis compared Scherff's dominance to former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Davis encountered while coaching at Texas in 2009. A likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Scherff provides a great luxury for the Hawkeyes at left tackle. And if anyone needs help with a suitcase in Chicago, he's your man.
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM ET
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:

 

Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.

It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.


Alex from New Orleans writes: Brian, I know there's been a lot of talk about Michigan's struggles from last year, and how they might continue to struggle again this year. Rightfully so. But rather than talk about the team's floor and how far it will sink, as so many people want to do, what do you think Michigan's ceiling is as a team this year? Let's just say everything comes together from the O-Line to the Pass Rush. They've got two very good coordinators, and a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A lot of young talent, yes, but talent nonetheless. Jabrill Peppers, though a freshman, may not be of this world. I know this team won't go undefeated, but at the same time, I don't think there's one game on the team's schedule that it can't win. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.

But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: Should the Illini erect a Dick Butkus statue on the opposite side of Memorial Stadium from the iconic Red Grange statue? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.


David L. from Chicago writes: Last week, Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, asked who wouldn't make the Playoff in an imaginary world where every major conference produced one undefeated team, using Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor as examples. Great question, but I want to add a wrinkle to it: What if Ohio State, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor go undefeated and Alabama has one loss. Who are the four playoff teams then? (remember the media loves the SEC).

Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.

Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.


Chris from Castle Rock, Colo., writes: Why do you suppose Iowa running backs (namely Mark Weisman) were left off the Doak Walker Award watch list? Is this a way of tricking the AIRBHG for another season?

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.
SEC media days finally have wrapped up, and several other leagues will be on the stage next week. The Big Ten holds its media festivities July 28-29 in Chicago, and we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Northwestern is next on the proverbial dais, as coach Pat Fitzgerald will be joined by quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Collin Ellis.

1. How much is the unionizing debate impacting Northwestern's season preparations?

The last we saw Wildcats players, they were casting a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to rule on the university's appeal of the regional office's decision that would permit a union. If the NLRB rejects the appeal, the votes would be unsealed. The timing for the NLRB's ruling is unknown, and even if the appeal is shot down, the players are expected to vote down the union. But the debate was a major distraction during spring practice and could surface again during a critical preseason, where Northwestern must come together. Expect Fitzgerald and the players to downplay the union talk, although it will be interesting to see what Campbell, a close friend of union catalyst Kain Colter, has to say.

2. How will the offensive approach change with Siemian at the controls?

The big plus coming out of the spring was Siemian establishing himself as the top quarterback and clear-cut team leader. He shared quarterbacking duties with Colter the past two seasons, which worked at times but also muddled Northwestern's offensive identity. Siemian's strength as a passer, combined with a more experienced offensive line, suggests Northwestern will return to the pass-first approach it used from 2007-2010. The Wildcats return their three pass-catchers from 2013 -- Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale -- and should be strong on the perimeter if they choose to feature the air game. But they also are extremely deep at running back as Venric Mark, a 2012 All-Big Ten selection, returns from injury. Northwestern undoubtedly will pass more with Siemian, but it can't neglect Mark, its most explosive player.

3. What are the biggest priorities entering preseason camp?

Fitzgerald admitted late in the spring that Northwestern is behind schedule after missing a bowl game and the practices that go along with them. The Wildcats also had 11 players miss the spring with injuries, including projected starters like Mark and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, and potential starters like defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Cornerback Daniel Jones, an opening day starter in 2012, also should be back from a knee injury. The defensive line will be a focal point as McEvilly, Odenigbo and Gibson return to the rotation. Northwestern also must figure out its running back rotation, how promising young defensive backs like Godwin Igwebuike will be used and who emerges in the kicking game, as All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

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

To your questions:
Brian Bennett: Good question. The Buckeyes-Spartans showdown is unquestionably the top draw, at least on paper in the preseason. We'll see whether the two defending division champs can live up to their hype in the first two months. It's not so easy to pick out the clear No. 2 game, simply because the rest of the contenders are pretty bunched up. If I had to pick one, I'd go with Nebraska at Wisconsin on Nov. 15. Both should be top contenders for the West Division title, and there's a nice little rivalry brewing between the two programs, even if they've only played one close game since the Huskers joined the league. Then again, either one of Iowa's final two games -- both at home, against Wisconsin and Nebraska -- could end up looming just as large or even larger on the conference schedule. And Ohio State-Michigan is always, like, kind of important.


Max. C from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I really don't know why many people aren't giving Ohio State a chance to go undefeated next season. Here are my thoughts. Ohio State's first two games are against Navy and Virginia Tech, two teams that are below average passing teams. That will give the Buckeyes' secondary a chance to gel together and get used to the new system. No. 2: The offensive line will be good as always. No. 3: They have Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith and Ezekiel Elliott, plus a lot of other young talent. I think they're stocked.

Brian Bennett: Ohio State has a schedule that's more challenging up and down than it was a year ago. When you add in Cincinnati, there are three nonconference games that carry the potential for an upset. Then again, the Hokies and Bearcats each come to Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeyes figure to be significant favorites, and Ohio State has vastly superior talent to Navy. For me, it really comes down to whether Urban Meyer's team can navigate tough road trips to Penn State and, of course, Michigan State. I don't see any other games on the Big Ten schedule that should seriously threaten the Buckeyes. Like you said, Max, the schedule sets up well to allow the secondary to gel, but the offensive line had better come together quickly. I suspect it will.


Brian Bennett: I do like the potential of the Hawkeyes' offense quite a bit this year. They have a veteran quarterback now in Jake Rudock, along with a stable of experienced and talented backs. They might have the best offensive line in the league and most likely the top offensive tackle in Brandon Scherff. And there looks to be more speed and explosiveness -- finally -- at the receiver position for Greg Davis to exploit. Still, lighting up the scoreboard isn't usually Kirk Ferentz's style. He prefers to control the ball on the ground, rely on strong defense and -- unfortunately sometimes -- play the field-position game. There have been notable exceptions, of course, such as when Iowa averaged 37.2 points per game to lead the Big Ten in 2002. But in more recent years, his better teams haven't been high-scoring ones, such as when the Hawkeyes were 10th in the Big Ten in points per game in 2009. Iowa has embraced some notable changes, such as using the hurry-up on occasion. And its schedule should provide opportunities to rack up some big numbers early on. Still, with other potentially potent offenses in the league like Ohio State, Indiana, Northwestern, Nebraska, etc., I have a hard time seeing Iowa finish among the leaders in scoring this year. Which doesn't really matter, as long as the team wins.


Samuel from Iowa City writes: You wrote: "But, hey, the East-West is here the way it is, so let's see how it plays out. "Brian, after what happened to the Legends and the Leaders, surely you don't believe the East and the West are completely safe?

Brian Bennett: As we have learned in recent years, even some of the staunchest traditions in college football can change dramatically. True, the Legends and Leaders last only three years (pause for a moment of silence). I would expect the East and West divisions to have a longer shelf life, especially with the league having scheduled out to 2019 already. The one thing that could blow up the current division setup quickly is another round of expansion. That doesn't seem to be on the immediate horizon, but you can never say never anymore. If the divisions prove to be too imbalanced one way or another, I think the league would look at reorganizing them. But it would be several years down the road before that happened.



Brian Bennett: I think Northwestern would be pretty happy if Trevor Siemian could replicate his numbers from last year's season finale: 414 passing yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. Of course, you don't get to play the Illinois defense every week. In all seriousness, I think Siemian could be in line for a very good year. The Wildcats aren't going to be running the option very much when he's in there, or at least they shouldn't, since he has run for a total of 100 yards (on 74 carries) in three years. Kain Colter, he's not, both for good and bad. Northwestern also has a veteran receiving corps that should lead to a strong passing game. One concern: Siemian completed less than 60 percent of his passes the last two seasons. He needs to get his accuracy up closer to the Persa range, or at least make it more Kafkaesque, while improving his decision-making. As a senior with the job to himself, Siemian should improve in that area. 
Northwestern’s coming off an unusual 2013 season -- losing four straight games by one score -- and has endured quite the unique offseason with the unionization vote.

Through it all, redshirt senior Trevor Siemian has been a constant for the Wildcats. He’s a team leader, the starting quarterback -- and a big reason this team isn’t overly concerned with Kain Colter's graduation.

ESPN.com checked in with Siemian recently to chat about some hypotheticals, the goals for this season -- and about his unhealthy obsession with a certain rock band that formed in the '90s.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThere are very few things that Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian values more than a Dave Matthews Band concert.
Important first question for you, Trevor. It’s fourth-and-goal. You’re on the 5-yard-line. There’s one second left, and you’re down by five. What play do you call?

Trevor Siemian: Four verticals, and pick a matchup -- and let one of our receivers make a play, give him a chance. Yeah, I don’t think I’d go wrong there. At that point in time, it’s just a matter of who’s going to step up and make a big play for us. Maybe throw a fade or an inside vertical to Christian [Jones] or Dan Vitale.

You didn’t really have to think about that -- at all. Is that just because you always have to be ready for something like that, in case you’re in a no-huddle or there are no timeouts?

TS: We play fast as heck anyway. [Laughs] So a play’s over, and I’m already thinking most of the time what we’re running before our guys are even tackled. I just think it’s instinctive because when you try to push the tempo, you see down and distance and, from there, what the game plan is, so you’re just trying not to be surprised by the call when it comes in. I’ve been here for four-and-a-half, five years so I kind of have a good feel for what they’re thinking and vice versa. It’s good that we’re on the same page.

Good answer -- so let me shoot another hypothetical your way. Tomorrow, a new NCAA rule says Northwestern can pick any player in the Big Ten and add him to the roster. Who are you taking?

TS: Oh man, that’s still playing? I’m trying to think. I got to be careful here. ... I don’t know, maybe that running back from Wisconsin -- Melvin Gordon's pretty good. I’m trying to think of who else but, you know, I’m really not sure.

It seemed like you had an answer waiting if I said you could’ve picked a guy from last year. You have someone in mind there?

TS: You know, I was going to tell you Chris Borland. I thought he was pretty good when he played us.

You said before that fans recognize you around campus and will ask for a photo or autograph every now and then. But let me flip that around: What’s one celebrity that’d make you go fan-boy crazy if you met them?

TS: Probably Dave Matthews. I’m a big Dave Matthews fan; that’d be pretty cool to meet him. And maybe like the president would be pretty cool, too.

I love how Dave Matthews was your first choice, and Barack Obama was No. 2. Why such a big DMB fan?

TS: I don’t know. I think with Dave fans, it’s like if you’re a fan of Dave Matthews, you’re in this community. It’s like everyone is beaucoup crazy for Dave Matthews. I am to a certain extent -- I don’t have any Dave tattoos or anything, like I see at his concerts with some people going a little overboard with. But I think it’s a little different from most other bands; the following seems to be almost more dedicated.

Well, if I have to ask since you’re such a big Dave fan, what’s your favorite song?

TS: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if it’s my favorite song, but here’s a funny story: One of my roommates used to always play, ‘You and Me’ with his girlfriend in high school. So whenever I’m with him, I’ll try to sneak in and play ‘You and Me’ loudly on my phone. But, for me, maybe ‘Funny the Way It Is.’ I don’t know, picking a Dave song is like ... I don’t know. I’m actually going to see them July 5, I want to say.

We’ve covered your favorite musician, so I feel like it’s only natural to ask -- what’s your favorite movie?

TS: I like Shawshank Redemption, but my favorite movie is Sandlot for sure. I must’ve watched it 600 times when I was a kid, and I just dig it. I’m a big Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez fan. I thought the characters were pretty cool -- like Squints, the Ham -- I just thought it was a cool movie. They have to turn it back on sometime soon here.

I haven’t seen that movie in FOR-EV-ER. But let’s switch gears here a minute. There’s been quite a bit of talk about unionization, and I know you don’t want to dwell on that. But you and your teammates didn’t all agree here -- how is that going to affect you guys when the season starts?

TS: I think it was tough to say going through it all when it happened. But I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long-term.

Finish this sentence: Northwestern’s 2014 season will be a success if __________.

TS: We win the Rose Bowl.

I should've seen that coming. Anyway, we’re in World Cup mode, and I asked Rutgers’ tight end this. So final question: Who’s going to win it all this year?

TS: My heart wants to say USA, man. Big time. And we got a chance. I thought going into it, before we beat Ghana -- I’m not going to lie -- I thought Argentina was going to run away with it. And Brazil tied Mexico, so I don’t know how strong they look either. But, in a perfect world, USA wins on a Clint Dempsey 89th-minute goal to seal the deal.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
4:30
PM ET
I'm taking your questions for a third time this week, filling in the Friday time slot for the vacationing Rittenberg. I'll be gone myself next week, so this will be the last time I talk to you for a bit.

What do you got?

Doc from Scottsdale, Arizona, writes: What is your best case scenario for the Big Ten brand next season in regards to the Playoff? Assuming just one team gets into the Playoff, does it matter which school is there "representing" for the BIG or should just having a presence in the game be considered a victory for the league?

Brian Bennett: Best-case scenario, naturally, is winning a national title. Nothing enhances your brand quite like that. But the second part of your question is the important one, Doc. I think it's vital for the Big Ten to get a team into the Playoff this season. Conferences that don't take part in the four-team event will basically be irrelevant. I don't even think it matters if a Big Ten representative wins its semifinal as long as it is competitive (nightmare scenario: a blowout loss to the No. 2 SEC team in a semi.) Makes no difference which team from the league gets there, but the conference needs to make sure its champion is involved most years.


JR from Winchester, Virginia, writes: What signs or trends from the first few nonconference games will you be looking for that will telegraph what kind of year Nebraska will have? (Turnovers? Ability to pass the ball? Defensive line play?) Thanks.

Brian Bennett: You picked three good ones there, JR. Nebraska should have little to no trouble with its first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State. Fresno State on the road in Week 3 could prove a bit dicier, but the Huskers should still win that game if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. I want to see dominance, especially in the trenches and on that defensive line, in those first three games. I want to see Tommy Armstrong take care of the ball and show that he can make plays down the field. And mostly, I want to see Nebraska avoid some of the extreme mood swings and fluctuations we've witnessed in the past.

A great nonconference performance doesn't guarantee anything, because an injury or other adversity can strike any time. But it would be nice for the Huskers to avoid drama early on.


@TimShay17 via Twitter writes: The Badgers' passing game is their biggest question mark this season. Which is more of a concern: QB race or the unknowns at WR?

Brian Bennett: Good question, and I say it's the wide receivers. Joel Stave, at the very least, is a known quantity. The team won nine games with him as its starter last season, and an extra year of experience can only help him. If Tanner McEvoy beats out Stave, then it's because McEvoy is playing well in practice and offering an improvement. The receivers are still a giant question mark. It's anyone's guess who will lead this team in receiving this year after Wisconsin relied so heavily on Jared Abbrederis the past two seasons.


PurpleCatResurgence from Northbrook, Illinois, writes: Look I get it, Northwestern was sub-.500 last year, and the team still has some holes to fill, but the Cats are getting NO love in the national publications. This is almost the same team that if they get what, 5-6 plays go their way, they are a 9- or maybe even a 10-win team. They have a tough schedule this season, no doubt, but how many wins do you see this team achieving? In your view, what has to break right for this team to play in Indy this fall? Love the blog- Go Cats!

Brian Bennett: It is funny how quickly things can change. Northwestern was 4-0 and rising toward the top 15 heading into October last season. Then came the loss to Ohio State, the first of seven straight defeats, and now the Wildcats are basically off the national radar. Still, this is a team that won 10 games in 2012 and had been to five straight bowl games. As you said, Northwestern dealt with some serious bad luck in 2013, not only late in games but also with a ridiculous rash of injuries.

So Pat Fitzgerald's team could easily be one of the most improved in the Big Ten in 2014. Venric Mark is healthy again, and the offense has a solid identity behind Trevor Siemian. Plenty of talent returns on defense. The schedule is not easy, as the Wildcats drew Michigan and Penn State from the East Division and play at Notre Dame in November. On the other hand, the West does not appear to have any truly dominant teams. I definitely see the 'Cats getting back to a bowl. For them to truly contend for a division title, the offense needs to rediscover its explosiveness, and Fitzgerald will have to figure out how to get over the hump in some of those close games.


@mort_c15 via Twitter asks: Urban Meyer has said repeatedly that this year's freshmen will play will for OSU and few will redshirt. How many will, in your opinion, RS?

Brian Bennett: Meyer told me this spring, as he said often, that he made a mistake by not playing more true freshmen last season. He plans to avoid that in 2014. At the same time, he's not going to play freshmen just to play them. Barring injuries, it's safe to say that Raekwon McMillan, Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Jalyn Holmes will play. Erick Smith could get a look at safety. Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker could force their way onto the field on special teams, at the very least. The more likely redshirt candidates are offensive linemen, like Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor, and quarterback Stephen Collier. Expect to see a lot of true freshmen on the field for the Buckeyes, but if a whole bunch of them are in key roles, that's probably not the best sign.


Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: There seems to be more time travelers here predicting how their favorite team (who has never shown the ability to win out) is going to just absolutely BEAT everyone, go undefeated and win the national championship. Yet you restrain yourself from laughing at them. Is it ever hard to do so?

Brian Bennett: I may have to hold back a chuckle or two. But that's the beauty of the preseason in college football (or any sport, really). Everybody's undefeated, and optimism abounds. Why punish that? The actual season will do that on its own.
Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/suffer from a grotesquely swollen jaw, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats, who learned the hard way last year how tough it is to play without some of your most valuable players.

Brandon Vitabile, C, Sr.
Throughout a very rough 2013 season for the Wildcats, Vitabile provided some stability. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer and team co-captain, and the redshirt senior has now started 38 straight games. Vitabile enters the season as one of the top centers in the league, and his leadership would be tough to replace on an offensive line that underperformed at times last season. Quarterback Trevor Siemian would also be a big loss on the offensive side, but Northwestern has some talented -- if very young -- options behind him.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Sr.
The secondary should actually be one of the deepest and perhaps strongest units on the field for the Wildcats, who will return starters at all four defensive back spots. But Campbell is the most experienced and valuable player in the back end. His four interceptions tied for the team lead last year, and he provides major help in run support. Defending the middle of the field was an issue for Northwestern last year, and without Campbell, it would quickly become a major problem again.
In the past two days, we have looked at the most likely 1,000-yard rushers and 1,000-yard receivers in the Big Ten for 2014. That leaves one major offensive statistical milestone to examine: 3,000-yard passers.

Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.

But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:

  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
  • [+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
    AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
    Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
  • C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
  • Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
  • Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
  • Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
  • Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
On Wednesday, Adam took a look at which backs were most likely to top 1,000 yards rushing in 2014. Today, we examine another yardage milestone for offensive skill players: 1,000 yards receiving.

Unlike the 1,000-yard mark for a back, getting to 1,000 yards receiving is not always easy, especially in a league like the Big Ten that often lacks prolific passing attacks. In 2012, just one Big Ten receiver reached quadruple digits in yardage -- Penn State's Allen Robinson, who had 1,013. Last year was a much better season for league wideouts, as Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis all got to that plateau. Illinois' Steve Hull just missed it with 993 yards in 12 games.

But all five of those players are gone, along with three others who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards per game in the conference: Indiana's Kofi Hughes, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa and Ohio State's Corey Brown.

So it's a bit of a rebuilding year, receiving-wise, for the Big Ten in 2014. Still, let's take a look at the top prospects for a 1,000-yard season among the league wideouts:

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsThere's no doubt that Maryland WR Stefon Diggs has the talent. He just needs to stay healthy to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland (587 receiving yards in 2013): His numbers weren't huge last season because he missed the final six games because of injuries. Diggs -- who compiled 848 receiving yards in 11 games as a freshman in 2012 -- is arguably the most talented receiver in the Big Ten. He just needs to stay healthy. Throw in teammate Deon Long as well. He had 809 yards receiving in 2011 but has struggled with injuries the past two seasons.

Shane Wynn, Indiana (633): Wynn is one of the most explosive players in the league and had 11 touchdown receptions last season. As the Hoosiers look to replace Latimer and Hughes, he should become an even larger factor in the offense despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-7).

Devin Funchess, Michigan (748): Funchess would be one of the more unconventional players to register 1,000 yards receiving, as a 6-5, 230-pound converted tight end. But he is the Wolverines' leading returning receiver, and if he can fix a mild case of the dropsies, he could go even higher in 2014.

Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (478): Carroo flashed his ability as a sophomore in 2013, grabbing nine touchdowns in just 10 games. The Scarlet Knights rave about his talent. The team's passing game must improve significantly for any receiver to have a chance at 1,000 yards, but new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen might be the man to fix it.

Kenny Bell, Nebraska (577): Bell seems to make this list every year, and he got close to becoming the Huskers' first-ever 1,000-yard receiver in 2012 with 863 yards. His numbers dipped last season, but a more consistent passing attack could help him turn in a big senior season. He is, after all, a little more aerodynamic now.

DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue (546): Yancey got more than halfway to 1,000 as a freshman despite having one or zero receptions in seven games and often playing with a true freshman quarterback in Danny Etling. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch, showing his explosiveness. The Boilers have a long way to go on offense, but Yancey is a playmaker they can build around.

Christian Jones (668) and Tony Jones (630), Northwestern: The Wildcats have spread the ball out so much lately that no one receiver has put up monster stats (though if you combined these two guys into one receiver named ChrisTony Jones, you'd have a 1,300-yard wideout). But Northwestern should pass the ball more and run option a lot less with Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback, so that could increase everybody's numbers in the passing game.

Geno Lewis, Penn State (234): It would be quite a leap for Lewis to go from his modest 2013 numbers to the 1k level. But with Robinson gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes. Lewis is the most experienced target and a talented player who could take advantage of a great opportunity. If not, perhaps a freshman such as De'Andre Thompkins or one of the team's tight ends steps up.
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.
video

If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.


The next 24 hours are pivotal and historic in college sports. Right now, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors are meeting in Indianapolis, where they're expected to approve a proposal granting autonomy to the major revenue-generating conferences. This would allow the big leagues to provide significant benefits for athletes.

Then, on Friday morning, up to 76 Northwestern players will vote whether to form a union after being deemed employees of the school by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Here's what you need to know about the vote:

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has voiced his strong opposition to players unionizing.
Where: The N Club room inside McGaw Hall, just north of Ryan Field.

When: There are two voting windows, 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m. CT and 10 a.m.-noon CT

Who: Scholarship football players who are enrolled and participating in team activities. Walk-ons or incoming scholarship players who have yet to enroll are not part of the vote. Players are not required to vote.

Voting procedure: A simple majority is required to form the union. The NLRB will monitor the vote. Officials from both Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players in a union, can observe the vote.

Possible outcomes: Although Friday's vote is important, its outcome is tied to a pending appeal by Northwestern of the regional director's ruling. If the NLRB's national office chooses to consider the appeal, it could overturn the original decision, effectively killing the union push. If so, the results of Friday's vote would never come to light. If the NLRB national office denies the appeal, the vote would be revealed. If a majority of players vote for the union, it would be formed and the players could attempt to collectively bargain with Northwestern. CAPA, led by president Ramogi Huma, would represent the players in negotiations with the school. If Northwestern chooses not to collectively bargain, the case would go to federal court. If the players vote down the union and the NLRB denies the appeal, confirming players as Northwestern employees, there could be another union vote in 12 months.

Lobbying: Both CAPA and Northwestern have briefed players about the implications of unionizing in recent weeks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald outlined his anti-union position in an extensive Q&A with players and their families. Fitzgerald is allowed to state his views and provide information, but he cannot make promises or threats about the vote, nor can he solicit players about how they will vote. CAPA and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who launched the union push in January, also have been in contact with players about the vote. Neither side can meet with players in the 24 hours before the vote.

The buzz: Several senior leaders on the team, including quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, have voiced their opposition to the union. Linebacker Collin Ellis told ESPN.com that players entered the campaign with the hope of getting change at the national level, not to cast Northwestern in a negative light. There's undoubtedly a pro-union group on the team who have been quieter leading up to the vote. Many others have weighed in, from former Northwestern players to other college coaches and players. Former Northwestern president Henry Bienen questioned whether Northwestern could continue with big-time athletics if it had a union. Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced their support for CAPA and the union push. So have union leaders both inside and outside the sports world. No one has suggested the status quo remains, but many question whether unionizing is the right mechanism for players to improve their situation.

A few more thoughts:

  • The timing of the vote is fascinating, on the heels of the Division I Board of Directors meeting. An approval could signal to players that new benefits are on the horizon, such as enhanced athletic scholarships, continuing education and long-term medical coverage. Would a union be worth it at that point? Remember, neither side can meet with the players today, so they would have to track the Division I meeting on their own.
  • Check out more coverage of the union vote and its implications here and here and here and here.
  • Media are not permitted in the voting room or on campus near McGaw Hall, so coverage of Friday's vote could be limited. Northwestern is allowing players to talk to the media if they so choose, but Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and other officials aren't expected to speak.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
5:00
PM ET
Sorry for the lack of a mailbag last Wednesday, but I was busy catching up with folks at Ohio State. Never fear: the Monday mailbag is back.

D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?

Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.

So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.

If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.


Kelly from Wilmington, N.C., writes: Brian, I know you said in your article that you don't think "The Game" would ever be a prime-time game, but do you think Michigan will gauge this year's game vs. Penn State to consider using Penn State and Ohio State every other year for a night game? They went from "never" to yes with Notre Dame and are now using Penn State. Yes, they get a great spot every year on ABC, but could you imagine if they moved to it a night game? Is it possible that they have realized that at least one night game a year is great in so many ways, not just for Michigan, but the Big Ten as a whole?

Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.


Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Can any conclusions be drawn about the benefit of spring games based on some of the attendance numbers you guys have mentioned in your recaps? I'm not going to pull a Braxton Miller and brag about PSU's "domination" of spring game attendance in the B1G, but ... some schools can really use the spring game as a springboard for recruiting, while other schools ... under 10,000 at Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and more might only be hurting their own image? Weather wasn't much of a factor this weekend, so what is the reasoning for the rather paltry attendance numbers, or is the annual spring game at other schools not nearly the weekend long "festival" that the Blue-White game is in State College every year?

Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.

I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.


Dalton from Cincinnati writes: I've had some different debates with some of my friends on why Michigan hasn't been able to rebound and compete for a Big Ten championship since 2006. To clear things up, do you think it is because Michigan State is no longer "the little brother" in this rivalry, or because Ohio State has won all but two meetings against them since 2001? Or is it the fact MSU hasn't had as much coaching turnover, has had better coaching and better development of their recruits and has had more winning seasons? I think MSU becoming more constant under Mark Dantonio has led to this occurring than anything else. What is your take on this?

Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.

Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.

Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.

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