Big Ten: Venric Mark

Big Ten Monday mailbag

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
5:00
PM ET
How was everybody's weekend?

OK, enough small talk. Let's dive right into today's Big Ten mailbag.

Josh Moyer: Two names immediately spring to mind: Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Indiana's Tevin Coleman. Langford did pretty darn well in his first year as a starter in 2013, and he can only get better. He didn't carry the ball more than 20 times until Game 6. And, from that point on, he carried the ball at least 21 times in every contest and set a school record by reaching 100 yards in eight straight games. He's the odds-on favorite to once again lead the Big Ten in rushing TDs and, nationally, only four returning tailbacks gained more yards than him last season. Plus, Connor Cook said in the spring that Langford has taken on a much bigger role in the passing game. With Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah taking up most of the spotlight in the B1G, Langford might be one of the most overlooked tailbacks in the nation. Coleman has received a lot of love from the Big Ten blog, but for good reason. He missed the final three games of 2013 with an ankle injury and never received above 20 carries a game -- but still finished with 958 yards. He also averaged 7.3 yards a carry last season and was even able to reel off a 64-yard run against Michigan State. With another offseason and a healthy ankle, the explosive junior has the potential be the Big Ten's surprise tailback this season. Josh Moyer: Let me answer your question with another question, Colin. What game would you prefer to watch: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech or Alabama vs. Oregon? One features the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team; the other features USA Today's No. 37 team vs. No. 80 team. (Last season the Spartans' offense was ranked No. 80 and Oregon's defense was No. 37). In other words, at its heart, strength on strength is just more entertaining. So, naturally, it's going to draw attention away from the other matchup. Still, the other matchup constitutes half the game, so let's take this time to look a bit closer at that "other" battle. Oregon's defense has a better ranking than the Spartans' offense, but there's still a lot at play here. On the surface, the Ducks boast a great run-defense since they allowed just 3.8 yards a carry last season. But there are some potential issues. For one, the two teams that had the most rushing attempts against the Ducks -- Stanford and Arizona State --both wore them down and ended up with wins. Secondly, only three teams in the nation were worse against the run on third down (65.5 percent conversion rate) and only seven teams in the nation were worse at stopping rushing plays at the line of scrimmage (17.8 percent). And, thirdly, Oregon has to replace two good defensive tackles. So you have to think Langford's success inside should have a big impact on the game. In the secondary, Oregon also boasts one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 in cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. So Cook would be wise to avoid him altogether, especially since the Ducks don't have a proven No. 2 CB. So, sure, the Michigan State offense vs. Oregon defense has its own storylines at play. But count me in with the majority. I'm still more looking forward to the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. Can Michigan State crumble the hopes of a Heisman hopeful? Can Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota deflate the aspirations of Spartan Nation just one week into the season? That's just going to be plain fun to watch. Josh Moyer: Hey, I dig the optimism, but getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we, Sean? Anyway, I could definitely see Penn State getting some votes and making an appearance around Nos. 24 or 25 if it knocks off Northwestern to go 5-0. But chances are it'll need another quality win -- or at least one that trumps the likes of Akron and UMass -- to really work its way into the top 25. (A reminder: Polls will have little to no bearing on the playoff this season.) A quick start like that is possible, but it won't be easy with three decent opponents. Central Florida has a great secondary and could test Christian Hackenberg with his inexperienced wideouts. Rutgers' defensive line could pose problems for PSU's thin offensive line, which will likely feature two converted defensive tackles at offensive guard. And, even without Venric Mark, Northwestern boasts enough returning starters to pose a problem. A celebration after a 5-0 start might even be a bit premature for Penn State because the stretch immediately afterward is more important. There are no guarantees there: at Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, at Indiana. How PSU fares there might be the key to its season. Josh Moyer: Hoo boy, that's a tough one. Important follow-up question: How good of a friend? It's definitely a good week for Big Ten football but mainly due to three matchups: Michigan-Notre Dame, Michigan State-Oregon and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. Also, Northwestern-Northern Illinois might not be bad. But everything else? Hmmm ... how do I put this delicately? Unwatchable garbage (e.g. - Rutgers-Howard, Nebraska-McNeese State, Maryland-USF, etc.). But there might be hope for you, Matthew. The kickoff for the earliest of those three games is 6:30 p.m., so that should at least give you some time to find a TV at the reception. Or, barring a TV (what kind of wedding is this?), give you time to fake the stomach flu. I can only imagine "Dear Abby" would offer the same advice. Or at least she should. Godspeed.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
5:00
PM ET
Very soon, college football will occupy your weekends. Until then, here's an extra-large mailbag to help you make it through. Continue to submit questions for our team of reporters.

Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.

Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.

Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.

Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles. 
KENOSHA, Wis. -- Northwestern's practice Thursday began with some players, mostly baritone offensive linemen, singing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a prayer." It ended with the annual watermelon eating contest.

The Wildcats didn't exactly look like a team in crisis.

They've endured a lot in the past 10 months, from a season-crippling Big Ten losing streak to the potentially locker room splintering unionization campaign with no resolution. The latest blow arrived Wednesday, as star running back Venric Mark announced he would transfer, the day after he oozed optimism about the 2014 season. To make things worse, Northwestern also learned leading receiver Christian Jones would miss the season with a left knee injury.

Wednesday's news sparked doom-and-gloom forecasts among fans and media members, but there were no dark clouds above the Wildcats as they went through their workout.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMINorthwestern will be without the services of Venric Mark, who has decided to transfer.
"The approach of this group since January, they have been through some things together now and it's on our seniors and leadership council to step up and lead," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I've seen no dip at all, and this is another tough bump in the road."

Fitzgerald provided few details about Mark's departure other than confirming that the running back could have remained on the team but chose to transfer. It's unclear whether Mark would have faced additional playing-time discipline beyond the initial two games if he decided to stay.

Mark left the team's off-site training camp Wednesday morning and the team learned of his departure after practice that night.

"I don't think many people knew about it, if anyone knew about it," senior safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "It was definitely a tough loss. It was a family member that our guys knew [and] love. It's kind of sad to see him go."

Campbell spoke to Mark, who told him that he was "going through some things at home" and needed to be closer to his family in Houston. Mark hopes to play this season but might face several hurdles to be eligible. He has one course to complete this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.

"Like I told him and his mom, we'll help him in any way we can," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see where that goes. That's out of my control. ... It's an unfortunate part of college football, but it happens. The challenge, quite frankly, is on him. We move on. The program moves on. The challenge is always on the individuals."

Northwestern likes its depth both at running back and wide receiver despite the losses of Mark and Jones. Veteran Treyvon Green leads the running back group, but two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, are expected to play this fall, Fitzgerald said. Northwestern also has experience at receiver with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater, the USC transfer who finally looks ready to blossom.

The biggest void could be at punt returner, where Mark earned All-America honors in 2012. Campbell and wideout Mike McHugh both practiced catching punts Thursday. Northwestern lacked big-play ability both on offense and special teams last season, two spots where Mark could have helped.

While the Wildcats seemingly have faced more adversity than most teams in the offseason, Fitzgerald isn't concerned about the cumulative effects.

"Externally, it would seem like it has been maybe overwhelming, but internally I think it’s a lot different," Fitzgerald said. "... I read somewhere that Nebraska lost a couple guys. It's tough stuff, but that's why you recruit guys, that's why you coach 'em up.

"That injury or that circumstance is really tough for a guy, but it's another man's opportunity. It's their job to step up, and I know our guys will."

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
video» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
After a season of bad breaks (and often bad play) and a spring under national scrutiny, Northwestern hoped its toughest days were in the past.

Venric Mark
David Banks/Getty ImagesVenric Mark's sudden transfer is a tough blow for the Northwestern offense.
But Wednesday proved to be a very tough day for the program, as standout running back Venric Mark announced he will transfer to play closer to his home in Houston. If that stunner wasn't enough, Northwestern also lost veteran wide receiver Christian Jones to a season-ending knee injury sustained in practice.

Mark's transfer leaves more questions than answers at this point. The team announced last week that he would be suspended for the first two games this fall for violating an unspecified team policy. Mark learned of the suspension in June and appealed it, and while he called it "shocking" while speaking with reporters Tuesday, he also accepted it.
"Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts really bad," Mark said Tuesday after practice. "But there's no point in pouting. I'm going to embrace it."

New developments that surfaced after Mark's media appearance and before Wednesday night's announcement contributed to Mark's ultimate decision, ESPN.com has learned. Whether those developments were additional violations/discipline from the school or something unrelated -- like a family issue -- aren't known at this point.
"Northwestern has been an indescribable experience for me," Mark said in a prepared statement. "It has been my home for four years, and has molded me into the man I am. I’m one class shy of the Northwestern degree I’ve worked so hard for, and I will graduate. I’m devastated to leave my second home, but life is full of challenges and I’ve been presented with another one. Right now this is what is best for me and my family."

Coach Pat Fitzgerald added that Northwestern will miss Mark but that this is "unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him."

It will be interesting to see whether Mark ends up at an FCS school or petitions to play immediately at an FBS program like Houston or Rice.

Mark earned All-America honors as a punt returner and second-team All-Big Ten honors as a running back during a breakout 2012 season, where he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and had two punt-return scores. He missed most of last season with leg injuries but was granted an extra year.

This is a significant loss for Northwestern because of Mark's speed and playmaking ability. But the Wildcats have good depth at running back with Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long, and brought in several talented freshman recruits, including Justin Jackson.

The depth at wide receiver also is good with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, and others. Northwestern figures to be more of a pass-oriented offense with Trevor Siemian as the sole quarterback.

The shock value here is certainly significant, perhaps more so than the actual losses. But Northwestern's offense could use all the weapons it can get after a subpar 2013 season.

Check back for more developments.

Big Ten morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
8:00
AM ET
Let’s talk about your new favorite subject and mine: autonomy.

What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.

Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.

We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.

From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.

Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.

Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.

“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”

Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.

How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.

And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?

Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.

So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.

Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.

Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
Overtime
Last link . . .
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.

We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:

Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford returns after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 TDs in 2013.
Take 1: Mitch Sherman

The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.

Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.

But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.

There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.

Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.

Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.

[+] EnlargeGregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikIt took Randy Gregory one season to show NFL scouts he could be a first-round pick.
Take 2: Brian Bennett

The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.

NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.

Best case/Worst case: Northwestern

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
9:30
AM ET
Football practice is in full swing, and we're just three weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way, shape or form. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Up next: Northwestern.

Best case

The choice in wording allowed for an easy joke, but it was Pat Fitzgerald who was the one smiling and laughing as the regular season came to a close.

Northwestern had proven without a doubt that it was one of the most unified -- not unionized -- teams in the country, turning a bond fortified through all the attention inside and outside of the program into a motivator that pushed it all the way to a division title.

Claiming that West crown wasn’t easy, of course, as seasons rarely are for the Wildcats. They started showing their upside early by cruising through three nonconference games at home, surviving Venric Mark's suspension with ease. But they hadn’t made many true believers until going on the road and showing off what the revamped, versatile offense could really do with Trevor Siemian at quarterback as the Wildcats overpowered Penn State to serve notice to the Big Ten.

That momentum continued into October as Northwestern answered a question about its defense, unleashing a unit that clearly enjoyed playing at full strength as it slowed down Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon enough in a 31-20 win to take over the inside track in the West.

There was a hiccup at Iowa that tightened up the race, and a rare November game outside the league didn’t go Northwestern’s way either as it came up short against resurgent Notre Dame on the road. But the Wildcats bounced back quickly and trounced Purdue and Illinois to clinch the division and cap their turnaround with a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Michigan State’s vaunted defense may have held Northwestern in check and kept the Wildcats from adding the most coveted trophy in the league, but Fitzgerald was smiling again before the season was finally over after a Capital One bowl victory for a team that was once again famous just for what it did on the field.

Worst case

The issue was supposed to all be in the past, but there simply was no escape for Northwestern. And while they might not have ended up unionized when the final ruling came out, the entire team clearly wasn’t on the same page off the field -- and it showed up on it.

With a handful of players vocally expressing opinions that didn’t match up with the final verdict, dissension within the ranks took its toll on a distracted roster that entered the season expecting to contend in the West Division but instead found itself reeling and out of the race by the middle of October.

After opening the season with three comfortable wins against overmatched opponents, the lack of focus was plain to see in a disastrous road trip to Penn State that included too many penalties, a handful of turnovers and a defense that didn’t put up much of a fight in the front seven.

The issues on defense continued all month long against teams that had no problem running the football even against stout units, let alone one looking so similar to the Northwestern team that finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense a year ago. The Wildcats are relentlessly mocked with strike signs, and the defense often looks like it would prefer to stand in a picket line than take on the league's best tailbacks.

Wisconsin and Melvin Gordon racked up yardage at will in a decisive victory in Evanston. David Cobb did the same as Minnesota won at home, and Ameer Abdullah put the nail in Northwestern’s coffin in the West Division as Nebraska cancelled all the parties on homecoming.

There would be a couple bright spots with Fitzgerald rallying the troops for a November surge, knocking off Michigan to keep bowl eligibility within reach. And the Wildcats would get there despite falling at Notre Dame, edging Purdue and Illinois to cap a trying regular season on a high note.

But the union questions and the distractions kept popping up throughout preparations for the Detroit Lions Bowl, sending the Wildcats into the offseason with one more loss and without any satisfying answers.
The Northwestern Wildcats were looking forward to getting star tailback Venric Mark back after an injury-riddled 2013 -- but it looks as if the team will have to wait a few more games.

Mark, a senior, was suspended for this season's first two games after violating an unspecified team policy, the school announced Friday evening.

"I made a mistake and am prepared to deal with the consequences of that," Mark said in a news release.

The announcement is certainly a surprising one but, overall, shouldn't affect the preseason standing of the Wildcats. Northwestern's first opponent, Cal, is basically the Purdue of the Pac-12 and has widely been panned as the likely last-place finisher of the North. Northwestern's next opponent is Northern Illinois, which may be coming off a 12-2 season but lost four starters on the defensive line and has to replace dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch.

Mark would be a great boost to Northwestern's offense in those two games, but his absence shouldn't hurt the Cats all that much. Especially with Northwestern's depth.

Pat Fitzgerald has three other tailbacks who saw time last season, and senior tailback Treyvon Green took over last season with Mark on the sideline. He finished 2013 with 736 yards, eight touchdowns and 5.3 yards a carry, so he's not exactly green. Stephen Buckley and Warren Long also saw time in 2013 and can pick up the slack where needed.

"We've got solid depth at that position," Fitzgerald said during Big Ten media days. "I think we've been able to turn what's been perceived as a lack of depth in our program into a position of depth right now."

Granted, the Wildcats still lost production last season when Mark was sidelined. With Mark in 2012, Northwestern averaged 4.93 yards a carry. With Mark mostly gone in 2013, that average dipped to 4.08 yards per carry. Still, Northwestern has more experience this season -- and it's not as if they are facing Michigan State's defense those first two weeks.

No doubt Northwestern would prefer to have Mark back now. But between its depth and opponents? The Wildcats should be just fine.

Roundtable: B1G Top 25 players list

August, 1, 2014
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video

Earlier today, we wrapped up our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players entering the 2014 season. Not surprisingly, Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller topped the list as he aims for a third consecutive Big Ten offensive player of the year award.

Miller was a fairly easy choice at No. 1, but we debated several other players and where they should end up.

It's roundtable time, and our Big Ten reporter crew is set to break down the Top 25.

Which player did you struggle with the most to rank?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner's inconsistent play forced him down the Big Ten's top 25 players list.
Adam Rittenberg: Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner. He can be really, really good, as we saw last season in games like Notre Dame, Ohio Sate and Indiana. But he also has some moments -- or even entire games -- that leave you scratching your head. He actually didn't appear in my Top 25 because of concerns about his consistency, Michigan's depth at receiver and a struggling offensive line. I can live with him at No. 22 and could certainly see him rise up, but you just don't know what you're going to get week to week.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure I properly ranked (or in some cases didn't rank) the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights. It's tough because we haven't watched them that closely, while we know the ins and outs of players who competed in the Big Ten the past couple of years. I'm sure Stefon Diggs belongs, and Andre Monroe probably does, too. What about Tyler Kroft or Paul James or Darius Hamilton or Steve Longa or Deon Long? We'll know more about these guys' bona fides after they spend a year in the league.

Mitch Sherman: Venric Mark posed some problems for me. Coming back from a broken ankle that ruined his 2013 season, the Northwestern Wildcats running back is something of a forgotten man, especially amid an outstanding group of league backs. But Mark rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2012 and would have likely earned a spot higher than I gave him -- No. 16; 15th in the composite vote -- a year ago.

Which player(s) do you see making the biggest moves up the list for the postseason rankings?

Austin Ward: Now that he's the last one standing with the Indiana Hoosiers, quarterback Nate Sudfeld won't have to worry about sharing snaps or practice reps, and his numbers could skyrocket in that high-octane offense. Fairly or unfairly, though, if the defense doesn't lend a bigger hand to help earn Sudfeld some credit as a winner, he might not be able to climb all that much higher than No. 23.

Rittenberg: Two defensive players suiting up in the Mitten State jump out in Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (No. 20) and Michigan State Spartans cornerback Trae Waynes (No. 19). Ryan showed in 2012 just how good he can be when healthy, recording four forced fumbles and 16 tackles for loss. Coaches around the Big Ten love Waynes, who steps into the top cover corner role with Darqueze Dennard departing. I also love Tevin Coleman's potential and could see the Indiana running back in our postseason top 10.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerNate Sudfeld's stock should rise as he leads Indiana's offense this season.
Bennett: I admittedly like Gardner the most and ranked him higher than everyone else. Yes, he forces things at times. But he's also incredibly tough, and he got zero help from the running game last season. If Doug Nussmeier can improve the ground game and patch together a decent offensive line, Gardner could finish as a top 10 player.

What does the Top 25 say about certain positions in the league?

Sherman: We probably overvalue quarterbacks. It's the most important position in football, yes, but I doubt five actually rate among the league’s top 23 players. Interestingly, with the quarterbacks and five running backs, we've still got just 13 offensive players in the top 25. Clearly, it's a strong year for Big Ten defensive ends. By December, at least one of those pass-rushers will belong among the league’s best four players.

Bennett: Defensive end is stacked. Nebraska Cornhuskers' Randy Gregory, MSU's Shilique Calhoun and Ohio State's Joey Bosa are studs, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Theiren Cockran and Ohio State's Noah Spence are also special. Also, where are all the offensive linemen in a league known for them? Other than Brandon Scherff, star tackles, guards and centers are MIA.

Ward: Playing quarterback might not be all that fun this season. Ohio State's defensive line might be among the best in the nation, but that's not the only team that will be able to generate a ferocious pass rush. There are seven defensive linemen listed in the preseason top 25, and there could easily have been a few more.

Who were the biggest snubs, either in ranking or those who didn't even make the Top 25?

Sherman: I'll go with two guys who didn't make the list -- Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, on track to rewrite the school records at his position, and Rutgers' Longa, who collected 123 tackles as a redshirt freshman last year. If Longa played at an established league school, he would have made the Top 25. I voted Bell at No. 23, by the way, and Longa at No. 24.

Rittenberg: I ranked Illinois running back Josh Ferguson in my list and would have liked to see him in the group. He's incredibly versatile -- 50 receptions last season -- and explosive with the ball in his hands. I really like Waynes and think Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran could have been higher than No. 21.

Ward: Calling Doran Grant a snub might be a stretch coming off a season with three interceptions for Ohio State’s anemic pass defense, but I think the senior’s talent is overlooked and he’s primed for a breakout in the new system co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has installed. Playing more aggressively with bump-and-run coverage suits Grant’s athleticism, and by the end of the year, I expect he'll be recognized among the Big Ten's best.

Bennett: Indiana receiver Shane Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten player last season, and now he's the top option in the Hoosiers' high-octane passing attack. Fellow players pointed to Wynn as one of the league's best playmakers during media days, yet he didn't get his due here.

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The countdown started on Monday with the first five players and we climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday, setting the table for our next group of impact performers today.

No. 15: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern Wildcats: Mark is healthy and ready to go again for the Wildcats, and if there was a guarantee that he could return to the elite level he was at in 2012, the veteran rusher would surely be higher on the list. Instead he'll have to prove himself all over again this fall, though Mark will do so behind what should be an improved offensive line that could allow him to flash the explosiveness the Wildcats missed dearly last season.

No. 14: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers: In a league loaded with talented tailbacks, Indiana's dangerous, elusive rusher often goes overlooked. But Coleman is one of the most lethal weapons in the league when he's on the field, and despite playing in just nine games last season, he nearly topped 1,000 yards thanks to his eye-popping 7.3 yards per touch. If he can duplicate that again, the Hoosiers will keep racking up points and more attention will surely come his way.

No. 13: Carl Davis, DT, Iowa Hawkeyes: There may be some uncertainty behind him with Iowa breaking in three new starters at linebacker, but those fresh faces should benefit greatly thanks to the consistent work Davis can provide up front. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound, space-eating lineman doesn't accrue many individual statistics and was credited with just 41 tackles last year, but the job he does occupying blockers is invaluable for the rest of the Hawkeyes around him.

No. 12: Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Even without getting a chance to play the first two games as he wraps up a suspension, Spence still figures to challenge for the league lead in sacks by the time the season ends. The junior's incredible first step off the edge and a stacked group of Buckeyes on the defensive line will allow him to avoid double-teams, and that figures to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks as Spence tries to build on an eight-sack campaign last year.

No. 11: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland Terrapins: The Terps were stung repeatedly by critical injuries last season, but nothing might have hurt as much as seeing Diggs on the ground after breaking his leg against Wake Forest. Without his top-notch speed and ability to break free for big gains at any moment, Maryland's offense wasn't the same minus Diggs on the perimeter. He, too, will have to prove he's back to 100 percent. But Diggs has already suggested he's coming back even faster, which could make life miserable for a few defensive backs in the Big Ten.

Stay tuned as we move into the top 10 on Thursday ...

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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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.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
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.
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

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