Big Ten: Kevin Wilson
Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.
That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.
On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?
And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.
Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.
But it’s about more than money.
Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.
“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.
His program receives $2 million for the game.
Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.
These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.
Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.
Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?
Keep thinking big, Big Ten.
One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…
- Linebacker Jake Ryan, a Michigan captain in 2013, supports the decision of coach Brady Hoke to postpone an announcement this year until the end of the season. Derrick Green is the Wolverines’ top running back.
- Keep an eye on Rutgers tight end Kyle Croft. Washington State will be watching him.
- Michigan State’s first opponent, Jacksonville State, might provide a preview for the Spartans’ second foe.
- Braxton Miller had surgery. And it went well.
- Maryland features depth at running back.
- Expectations soar for Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Keys for Penn State in Ireland.
- How to measure progress at Purdue this fall.
- The long offseason is almost over for Northwestern.
- One night last season changed everything for David Cobb.
- Iowa running back Damon Bullock, bypassed last year, has worked his way back in line for carries.
- A key for Illinois? Develop a few dominant defensive linemen.
- Nebraska expects a big year from punter Sam Foltz.
- Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, younger brother of J.J., is set to help the Badgers at multiple spots.
"The farther from the ball you are, the better chance you have to get on the field early," Franklin said Tuesday. "That's where it really comes down to skill, speed and quickness."
Franklin is one of several Big Ten coaches who are banking on that adage being true right now. Because as Week 1 rapidly approaches, many league teams are hoping that some true freshmen and other very inexperienced players can make a major impact on their offenses.
That's a byproduct of the Big Ten losing its top seven and nine of its top 10 receivers from 2013. The youth movement is on at that position, and it's happening in earnest at some places.
Penn State is replacing record-breaking receiver Allen Robinson, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Franklin said true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin will play this weekend against UCF in Ireland.
"They've done well," Franklin said. "We need those guys to have roles for us, and hopefully that grows as the season goes on. Both of them are big, physical guys, they're mature and they've handled it extremely well. And with our lack of depth at that position, we needed that."
The Nittany Lions are also hoping for contributions down the road from first-year players Daesean Hamilton and De'Andre Thompkins.
Few teams are as green at wideout as Illinois, which will break in several new receivers this weekend against Youngstown State. They include true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner and junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.
"I'm really happy with the guys we have now," head coach Tim Beckman said. "The game experience isn't there for them yet, but I'm really happy with the athleticism, and I'm happy with the way they have learned the game and the offensive system."
Beckman said Martize Barr, who was a junior-college transfer last season, and junior Justin Hardee have done "an outstanding job teaching [the newcomers] how to practice and play. Now, we'll see how that works on Saturday."
Wisconsin's receivers could get the biggest baptism by fire, as they take on LSU on Saturday. True freshman George Rushing will be in the mix, and head coach Gary Andersen said he "has picked up the scheme and consistently made big plays." Freshmen Krenwick Sanders and Natrell Jamerson are vying for playing time as well.
"We're going to be receiver-by-committee," Andersen said. "We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."
Hopes are high for the talent on the perimeter at Ohio State. Still, three guys who are expected to play a lot -- Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas -- have yet to see a down in the FBS. True freshman Freddy Canteen will play early and often for Michigan. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies turned heads this spring at Iowa.
Indiana has one proven commodity in senior Shane Wynn. True freshmen Dominique Booth, J-Shun Harris and Simmie Cobbs have all worked their way into the rotation for Kevin Wilson, who's always been willing to play newbies. Ricky Jones, who barely played as a redshirt freshman last year, and former walk-on Damon Graham should also be in the Hoosiers' two deep vs. Indiana State.
"Oh, there's going to be some [mistakes]," Wilson said. "You're always concerned about it."
The time to find out if all these young receivers in the league are ready is almost here.
Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg).
Let's begin ...
I'm your bagman today. Season's less than a week away. Horses like hay, OK? Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg). Let's begin ...
Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Michael. The immediate response is to say Michigan State beating Oregon on the road. Oregon is a popular pick to make the playoff. It has a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Marcus Mariota and plays in one of the loudest, craziest, most hostile environments -- at least for the road team -- in college football. A MSU win would be huge both for the Spartans and the Big Ten. But you can't discount the Wisconsin-LSU game for this simple reason: It's against the SEC. The Big Ten's reputation issues stem in large part because of the SEC's success and the Big Ten's inability to beat the SEC in big games. The two leagues are richer and more popular (by far) than the others. So a win against the SEC, in essentially a road game in Houston, would be big for Wisconsin and the Big Ten. I'll ultimately go with Michigan State beating Oregon, but not by much. Both games are huge for the league.
@ESPNRittenberg With the reputation of the Big Ten being what it is, which non-con game is the most critical for the conference to win?— Michael Blum (@MichaelBlum3) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: To be clear, Justin is referring to Nebraska, not Northwestern. I think the rankings aren't based mainly on a perceived talent differential. Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar talent, and you can make a case the 2014 Huskers will be the more talented team as Wisconsin says goodbye to an exceptional senior class. But Wisconsin has had a slightly better track record than Nebraska in the past 15 years. The Badgers have won league championships and always seem to be in the title mix. Nebraska has been close under Bo Pelini, but can't get past the four-loss thing. The big difference between the teams, regardless of preseason ranking, is the schedule. Nebraska plays a division crossover at Michigan State. Wisconsin misses Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The Badgers also host Nebraska, which also must visit Iowa and a Northwestern team it has struggled to beat the last two years.
@ESPNRittenberg I see a lot of preseason rankings having Wisconsin ahead of NU do u think it has more to do with NU's past season or talent?— Justin (@SsGSmittyJ) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: There's virtually no chance he'll be back, Jeff. Melvin Gordon returned this year with the understanding that it would be his last as a Badger. He knows it and the coaches know it. Perhaps a major injury would cause him to return, but even then -- and perhaps because of an injury -- he likely would want to begin his pro career, given the short shelf-life for running backs in the NFL. Gordon wants to lead Wisconsin to the next level and hopes to do it this season. He'll obviously be disappointed if the Badgers don't win the Big Ten and/or make the playoff. But he also has to think about his future, which should begin in the NFL in 2015.
@ESPNRittenberg if UW has a good year, maybe 10-2, but Gordon doesn't win the heisman, any chance he comes back? Bama would be on '15 sched— Heff Jurda (@JeffHurdaCow) August 22, 2014
Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld found himself in a time-share situation at quarterback the past two seasons. No matter how well he performed -- and he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2013 -- Sudfeld never knew exactly when he might start or even play.
Throughout it all, he never complained. He saw a much bigger picture.
“It would be really hard for me, if I had a bad game or something, to get too upset,” Sudfeld said. “I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems.”
Sudfeld’s upbringing ensured that he would never get too wrapped up in himself. He comes from a family of missionaries who actually dare to try and alleviate some of the world’s problems.
His grandfather, Bob Pagett, is a former pastor who along with his wife, Charlene, decided to create a relief organization after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. He never dreamed it would take flight the way it has.
Assist International focuses on needs such as providing fresh water, delivering medical supplies and serving orphans in Third World nations. Pagett said the organization has completed projects in more than 60 countries around the world. It has built orphanages and schools in Romania, Uganda and other war-torn or impoverished areas.
Along the way, it also became the family business. Sudfeld’s father, Ralph, will take over as president of the organization next year, while his mother, Michelle, serves as fundraising director. Nate’s older brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development.
Pagett told each of his nine grandchildren that they could go with him on a relief mission when they turned 14. Shortly after he reached that age, Nate Sudfeld went to Uganda and Kenya, meeting renowned missionary Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe along the way. Sudfeld recalled playing soccer with orphans during the trip.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for our grandkids,” Pagett said. “When you grow up in Modesto and all of a sudden you go to Vietnam or Romania, your eyes are wide open and you’re a world person. They’re really into helping the poor and needy around the world, because they’ve been exposed to the world.”
Sudfeld has been itching to go on another mission ever since his first one. He had planned to join his twin brothers Matt and Zach, the latter of whom is a tight end for the New York Jets, on a trip to Uganda this spring. But the itinerary got postponed, and by the time it happened this summer, he was too wrapped up in football preparations.
Sudfeld hopes there will be time after this season to go somewhere on a mission.
“It seems like almost every time I’m on the phone with him he’s saying, ‘When can I go out? When’s the next trip?” Matt Sudfeld said.
For now, though, the Hoosiers take priority, and Sudfeld is the team’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback for the first time. Tre Roberson’s surprising transfer this summer cleared the way for the 6-foot-5 junior who threw 21 touchdown passes in eight starts a year ago.
It’s also the first time that fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson won’t have to juggle quarterbacks. He says Sudfeld has the talent to be "one of the premier players in our league" and that he has definite NFL potential.
That’s what Sudfeld has dreamed of since he was a high school freshman, when he would practice his throwing motion in front of a mirror to make sure he maintained a quick and compact release despite his height. Sudfeld said not having to look over his shoulder this season gives him more confidence, but he’s not settling for just owning the starting job.
“I’m not trying to just be the No. 1 quarterback at Indiana,” he said. “I’m trying to be one of the better players around. If I do that, it will make our whole team better.”
As he was raised to do, Sudfeld sees the bigger picture at play. And football is never all that’s on his mind.
“I’m really glad I was able to get out of my little California bubble at a young age,” he said. “[Relief work] is something I definitely want to be involved in as I get older. There’s nothing like it.”
Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.
"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...
"You've got me shocked."
Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.
"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"
Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.
"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."
To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.
"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."
Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.
But the volume isn't there.
"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."
The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.
"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."
Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.
"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."
So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.
"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.
Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.
But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.
"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."
Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.
Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.
"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.
"He's a rare talent."
A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.
On Wednesday, the Indiana football players got it in spades. Much to the delight of the team, the Hoosiers staff set up a slip 'n slide. And that's when the fun began -- including a sliding appearance from the big man himself, head coach Kevin Wilson.
I'm not a doctor and know Ohio State didn't take Miller's situation lightly, but the whole thing seemed odd. He initially hurt the shoulder in the Orange Bowl but didn't have surgery until late February, as Ohio State hoped the injury would heal on its own. Ohio State called the surgery "minor" and said Miller would be limited in spring practice. He sat out the whole session.
He started throwing in early July and was making good progress. But when camp began, he threw on a limited basis and sat out scrimmages to rest the shoulder. Monday morning, offensive coordinator Tom Herman acknowledged Miller "had a little bit of a setback with some additional soreness that we weren't expecting." Miller, not surprisingly, declared himself 100 percent. But later that day, on a seemingly benign rollout pass, he reinjured the joint. Season over.
Some, like colleague Austin Ward, are calling it a fluke. But it's not as if there wasn't concern before he was re-injured. Miller already had been experiencing considerable soreness.
From Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises:
The Buckeyes will move forward. On the outside, there may be some dwelling though, especially since Miller was calling himself "100 percent" hours before Monday afternoon's practice even though he hadn't been allowed to really let it go on consecutive days in practice.
"Oh, I second-guess everything," Meyer said about what could have been done differently since February.
"When I say second-guess, I just ask the questions, because I'm not a doctor," Meyer said. "And I don't know. But I've been around long enough, things happen and it's unfortunate.
"I have great trust in our medical stuff, but sure, will you second-guess? I wouldn't say second-guess, just make sure in the evaluation we're doing the best we can."
So the Buckeyes tried to limit Miller in the last few weeks. And then it went wrong.
Maybe Miller should have been completely shut down. Maybe the re-injury was just bad luck. Either way, it will be interesting to see how Ohio State handles Miller this time around.
Taking a spin around the league ...
- Being named Illinois' starting quarterback was a "dream come true" for Wes Lunt.
- According to Vince Biegel, Wisconsin's banged-up linebackers will be good to go for the LSU game.
- D.J. Foster's transition to defensive tackle is going smoothly so far for Nebraska. In case you missed it, Bo knows fun.
- An excellent piece on Cedric Thompson's path to becoming a leader for Minnesota's defense.
- Iowa CB Jordan Lomax responds well to losing his starting job last season.
- Purdue's kicking competition is far from over, while Northwestern's kick game looks a bit shaky.
- A DUI arrest in April led to Macgarrett Kings' spring suspension at Michigan State, but the wideout appears to have avoided playing-time penalties.
- Pete Thamel is there as Ohio State begins life A.B. (After Braxton).
- Michigan's starting offensive line is finally taking shape. The Wolverines have a two-man race at running back.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wants to see more from top quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Penn State's Week 1 trip to Ireland presents some unique challenges. James Franklin expects "a handful" of Lions freshmen to play right away.
- We're a week away from football, and Rutgers has started its preparation for the opener against Washington State
- Michael Dunn has had quite a journey to possibly starting for Maryland at left tackle this fall.
- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany takes on the Ice Bucket Challenge. Well done!
These aren't predictions or scenarios that are illustrative of the most probable outcomes. They are simply meant to show the potential highs and lows in a season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. Also an important reminder: We're trying to have some fun with these.
Up next are the Indiana Hoosiers.
Assembly Hall is a bit quieter than usual moments before tip-off on Nov. 22, as small pockets of seats remain empty for the basketball game against Lamar. The turnout is still great, but the drop is still noticeable.
"What about our attendance record?" red-faced Hoosiers basketball coach Tom Crean yells while turning to the crowd.
So where is everybody? Everyone in Bloomington knows. They are all in sports bars, dorms or four hours away in Columbus, Ohio, for the highly anticipated Nov. 22 football game against the Buckeyes. For once, this basketball school can’t get enough of the gridiron -- and the Hoosiers have been a treat to watch.
They currently stand at 8-2, after losses to Missouri and Michigan State. It’s Indiana’s best start since 1993, before most of its players were even born, and the campus is rocking. Fans start a petition for an actual mascot -- most votes go toward a return of Ox the bulldog -- and quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Shane Wynn are already locks for the All-Big Ten Team.
But the real surprise here, the one that causes all Indiana fans to rub their eyes every time they spot a positive headline, is the Indiana defense. No, it’s not a top-10 unit -- or even in the top 40. But it’s right around average. And never did mediocrity feel so good. Defensive coordinator Brian Knorr is hailed as a genius and a magician, and one local outlet even approaches Knorr about doing a photo-shoot dressed as a wizard. (Knorr politely declines.)
With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season, Indiana’s offense has easily become the most dynamic and fun to watch in the conference. Coleman is averaging more than 7 yards a carry, and the Sudfeld-Wynn connection has become a Big Ten phenomenon. A group of student-fans don T-shirts with crimson-and-cream Superman emblems, but insist the "S" stands for Sudfeld. Wynn even cracks into the top-six all-time in Indiana receiving.
There is a small Hoosiers contingent in Columbus for the game. Their reds blend into the scarlet and gray of the crowd, but all the "Hoosier daddy?" poster boards can’t be ignored. It’s a back-and-forth affair, but Indiana strikes first. Sudfeld escapes defensive lineman Joey Bosa to find Coleman in the flat, and he shakes two defenders turning a short catch into a 68-yard score. The matchup is almost like a poor man’s version of Michigan State-Oregon, but it’s just as entertaining.
But disaster strikes in the fourth. Bosa makes up for his mistake, as he and Michael Bennett plow into Coleman and the ball comes loose. OSU recovers and then milks five minutes off the clock before kicking a last-second field goal to win 35-34. Hoosier Nation is crushed, but they take solace in the fact that this team has surpassed all their expectations. Plus, there is always basketball season.
Sudfeld makes up for the loss by smacking around hapless Purdue the next week, as he drops five touchdown passes on the Boilermakers’ secondary. Indiana ends the regular season ranked within the top 25 at 9-3 and earns an invitation to a decent bowl. Hope is high for the future.
New defensive coordinator, new defensive alignment, new defensive players. Same old pitiful defense.
The Hoosiers make quick work of the unmighty Sycamores of Indiana State in the opener, but fans’ hopes take a dive just two weeks later against Bowling Green. The MAC opponent actually reclaims its falcon from the Toledo Zoo to drum up fan interest but, during the pregame, it swoops down and flies away with one of the Hoosiers’ game balls. The actual game doesn’t go any better. The Falcons’ Matt Johnson attacks Indiana through the air and throws five touchdowns en route to a 41-39 win.
It’s shades of 2012 all over again. "When does the basketball season start again?" one traveling fan asks within earshot of an angered Kevin Wilson.
Basketball can’t come fast enough. It is more of the same with the Hoosiers. The offense misses Tre Roberson a bit more than it thought it would and takes a small step backward, but its total offense is still ranked within the top 30. The real issue -- to no one’s surprise -- is defense.
Knorr, the defensive coordinator, privately wishes he never left Wake Forest. This seems like an impossible situation. The 3-4 scheme is just as ineffective as the 4-3, and even a personnel switch here or a substitution there can’t stem the scoring tide. Missouri racks up more than 600 yards of offense the next week, and Maryland gets close to 500 the week after.
Knorr wakes up in a cold sweat the Tuesday after losing to Maryland, 42-35, as Indiana drops to 1-3. His wife reassures him it was just a nightmare, but he was simply replaying the past three games in his head. It hasn’t been pretty.
His defense shows what’s believed to be signs of progress against North Texas in a convincing 49-21 win. But the coming weeks show that "progress" was actually just Indiana playing an inferior opponent. Knorr is forced to swallow two Advil every time he even thinks about watching film. The Hoosiers win just two more games all season, against Rutgers and Purdue, finishing 4-8.
Wilson is on the hot seat, Knorr is seriously considering latching on to another team, and the Indiana defense just becomes an overused punchline. In the season-ending news conference, Wilson and Knorr say it will just take time to adjust to a new defensive system. They say next season will be better and, Wilson jokes, "It can’t get any worse -- right?"
But can it ever get any better?
And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
- Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
- Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
- Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
- Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
- Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.
Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.
On to the links:
1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.
2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.
3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.
4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.
5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.
6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.
7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.
- Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell said he had to work as a bartender this summer to keep the lights and water on at his apartment. Huskers defensive tackle Aaron Curry will reportedly transfer to Oklahoma.
- Freshman Rafael Gaglianone and his booming Brazilian leg could take over Wisconsin's field goal duties (which could, sadly, mean an end to my Jack Russell puns).
- The LSU game is key to Melvin Gordon's Heisman hopes, Tom Oates writes. Totally agree. Even with a poor opener, Gordon could get back in the race by piling up yards. But Wisconsin's schedule means the Badgers won't get much national attention for weeks.
- Tracy Claeys is molding a strong defense at Minnesota.
- Five takeaways from Illinois' time at Camp Rantoul.
- Confidence is swelling for Michigan State's passing game. Spartans true freshman Montae Nicholson is already making an impression at cornerback and could possibly play some on offense.
- Ohio State's defensive line appears destined for greatness.
- Penn State is nearly ready to flip the switch and start preparing for UCF. James Franklin is having an effect on every corner of Penn State.
- Rutgers has plenty of big playmakers on offense.
We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.
Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).
Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”
That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.
Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.
Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.
I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.
In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.
My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.
Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
- Alabama transfer and current Ohio State Buckeye Chad Lindsay is competing for a starting spot at center.
- Michigan State boasts about seven offensive linemen who can be a part of the rotation, but assistant coach Mark Staten wants more.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
- A closer look at Rutgers' Thursday practice, from the opening song (Jackson 5's "ABC") to highlights of the day.
- Observations from Penn State's practice and who's standing out so far.
- Michigan's Saturday scrimmage will likely have an impact on how the starting offensive line turns out.
- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to play up to his players' intelligence by asking them to be more versatile. The Badgers' freshman class is already starting to make an impression.
- Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
- Who's going to be Minnesota's No. 2 tailback? Good question -- because the Gophers are still trying to figure that out.
- Purdue hasn't named Danny Etling the starting quarterback quite yet. Right now, it's an "equal opportunity" for all the signal-callers.
- Nebraska junior Givens Price might have found a home as the starting right tackle.
- True freshman wideout Mike Dudek is already impressing on-lookers at Illinois' practices, and one teammate called him the "most consistent wide receiver this camp."
- Without three of last season's top linebackers, the Hawkeyes have plenty of questions at the position -- but they also have plenty of depth.
- Our friends over at Grantland previewed the Big Ten.
"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.
(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)
Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.
Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.
All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.
Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.
From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."
True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."
If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.
Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).
Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.
His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.
"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."
Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.
Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.
IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.
The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.
"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"
Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.
Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...
- A look at how tight end Adam Breneman's injury impacts Penn State this season.
- Nebraska will be without reserve running back Adam Taylor (ankle).
- Ohio State LB Kyle Berger suffers another ACL tear.
- The grind begins this week for Michigan State. The wait for DeAnthony Arnett to make an impact with MSU could be over soon. Arnett came out of the spring feeling great about his progress, telling me, "It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself. I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
- Notes following Maryland's first scrimmage, including the impressive play of running back Brandon Ross.
- This Ohio State practice video is brilliant.
- The latest practice report from Rutgers, which produced no answers about the backup quarterback spot.
- Michigan's offensive line still has a lot of moving parts. The BTN crew weighed in on Michigan's practice on Monday.
- Previewing Indiana.
- Austin Appleby is closing the gap on Danny Etling and keeping Purdue's QB race very much alive.
- Kevin Trahan explains how a dull town in southern Wisconsin is the perfect place for Northwestern to focus on football.
- Illinois' offensive line is coming together these days.
- Marc Morehouse puts Iowa's running back group under the microscope.
- New Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward honors his mom every time he puts on No. 17.
- Wisconsin ends practice with a chipping contest, and coach Gary Andersen hits the mark.
- Minnesota RB Berkley Edwards talks about the advice he has received from his big brother, Braylon.
- Veteran Maryland QB C.J. Brown leads the Terrapins into the Big Ten.
- The best of Robin Williams. RIP.
Now, on to your questions ...
Bennett: Tom, I think you hit the nail on the head. As I evaluate the individual teams, I like Nebraska's overall roster the best. The Huskers have far fewer question marks than Wisconsin and better overall athleticism, in my opinion, than Iowa. (Though that didn't help Nebraska much last year in Lincoln vs. the Hawkeyes. Bo Pelini's team was pretty beat up by then and there was a lot of negativity around the program, but Iowa still took it to them on the road).
There's no question Nebraska has a tougher schedule than either Iowa or Wisconsin. The Huskers have to go to both Madison and Iowa City, and they drew Michigan State on the road as a crossover while neither the Hawkeyes nor the Badgers have to play any of the top East contenders. Schedules definitely matter. I think the Spartans would have won the Big Ten regardless last fall, but their crossover games -- Indiana, Illinois and Purdue, with no Wisconsin or Ohio State -- certainly didn't hurt. A true championship team can overcome schedule hurdles, however. We'll have to see if Nebraska is good enough to do so.
Bennett: If it was as simple as determining which conference should be left out, that would be one thing -- and there's no doubt the Big Ten wouldn't have stood a chance in 2012. The selection committee will also have to decide if there are two worthy teams from one conference (hello there, SEC fans). Conference strength shouldn't matter as much as how good an individual team is and who it played during the nonconference schedule. For example, let's say the Big Ten is down as a whole this year, but Michigan State or Wisconsin plows through the league undefeated. If they also won their marquee nonconference games (Oregon and LSU, respectively) and those opponents went on to have the kind of seasons we expect, then a weak Big Ten wouldn't hold them down.
I agree that it's going to be very rare, if not outright impossible, to have more than four undefeated teams. The real wrangling will be over similar 1-loss teams who played very different schedules. College football has always had a numbers problem, as the Big Ten and Big 12 membership illustrates. Now it has five power conferences for four playoff spots. And so it goes.
Bennett: You can never predict with precision which true freshmen will perform at a high level right away. Players develop at different rates, learn the finer points of the game at different speeds, suffer from home sickness, etc. That said, I tend to lean toward freshmen who A) enrolled early to get a head start on the process and B) play a position where it's easier to have an immediate impact. Based on what I saw in the spring, my pick on offense for the Indiana offense is wide receiver Dominique Booth. He's got a good build at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he was a well-regarded recruit, and he plays a position of need for the Hoosiers after the loss of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. I'd be surprised if he didn't get some early playing time.
@BennettESPN which true freshmen on offense and defense do you see having the greatest impact on the Hoosiers this fall?— Nick Holmes ( @HoosierHolmes) Aug. 5, 2014
IU didn't have any early enrollees on defense, but I think Kevin Wilson could call on some young guys in the secondary. So I'll go with safety Will Dawkins. Wilson has never been shy about throwing true freshmen into the fire, though the hope is that his staff has built enough depth now that they won't be relied upon as much in 2014.
Bennett: Schools didn't have a whole lot of say in the formation of the schedule once they all agreed on some general principles. And, naturally, Michigan didn't want the Notre Dame series to end how it did. You're right that some home schedules may suffer a little bit. However, in 2016, when the Michigan State and Ohio State games are away, Wisconsin and Penn State come to the Big House. In 2018, Nebraska joins those two teams as visitors to Ann Arbor. They may not be historic rivals, but those should still be attractive games. And the loss of the Notre Dame series allows Michigan to schedule some very good nonconference home-and-homes, which will mean visits in the future from Arkansas ('18), Virginia Tech ('20), UCLA ('22) and Oklahoma ('26) in those even-numbered years.
Bennett: Wow. I thought the preseason was supposed to be a time for optimism. I don't ever like to speculate on successors until a coaching change is clearly coming, and I don't root for any coach to lose his job. I will say that there's a good chance that the Illini are 4-2 after their first six games if they beat the teams they will be favored against. If so, that means Illinois would be in bowl contention for the entire month of November. I don't expect any kind of midseason firing in Champaign unless things go horribly awry.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Indiana Hoosiers.
Key returnees: Nate Sudfeld, QB; Shane Wynn, WR; Tevin Coleman, RB; Tim Bennett, CB; Ralph Green III, DT.
Key losses: Cody Latimer, WR; Kofi Hughes, WR; Ted Bolser, TE; Greg Heban, S; Mitch Ewald, K
OFFENSE: QB: Nate Sudfeld, Jr., 6-5, 228; RB: Tevin Coleman, Jr., 6-1, 210; WR: Isaiah Roundtree, Sr., 5-11, 197; WR: Shane Wynn, Sr., 5-7, 167; WR: Nick Stoner, Sr., 6-1, 190; TE: Danny Friend, So., 6-5, 255; LT: Jason Spriggs, Jr., 6-7, 305; LG: Bernard Taylor, Sr., 6-2, 310; C: Collin Rahrig, Sr., 6-2, 290; RG: Dan Feeney, So., 6-4, 307; RT: Peyton Eckert, Jr., 6-6, 308.
DEFENSE: DE: Bobby Richardson, Sr., 6-3, 286; DT: Adarius Rayner, Jr., 6-2, 307; NG: Ralph Green III, So., 6-5, 325; DE: Nick Mangieri, Jr., 6-5, 260; OLB: Forisse Hardin, Sr., 6-1, 230; MLB: T.J. Simmons, So., 6-0, 226; OLB: David Cooper, Sr., 6-1, 240; CB: Tim Bennett, Sr., 5-9, 185; S: Antonio Allen, So., 5-10, 205; S: Mark Murphy, Sr., 6-2, 215; CB: Michael Hunter, Jr., 6-1, 192.
SPECIALISTS: K: Aaron Del Grosso, Fr., 5-10, 195; P: Erich Toth, Jr., 6-3, 204.
Biggest question mark: Until the Hoosiers actually fix the problem, the weakness and most uncertain part of the team remains the defense. Indiana is going to continue to score points in bunches, but it's never going to make up any ground in the East if it can't find a way to at least slow down opponents. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr has a sizable task in front of him, and if he can just get the Hoosiers to the kind of level Wake Forest reached under him a year ago (24.1 points per game, No. 38 nationally), they can be a dangerous opponent to anybody.
Most important game: There may be plenty of time to make up for it if Indiana doesn't get off to a fast start in the league, but its opener in the Big Ten might be the most critical if the team is going to break through and get to a bowl game. Maryland won't be a pushover when it comes to Bloomington, Indiana, on Sept. 27, but if the Hoosiers can defend their home turf and start league play with a victory, the path to postseason eligibility would certainly open up. Drop that one at home and Indiana might find itself needing to steal one elsewhere.
Upset special: Penn State finally has a loss on what used to be an unblemished record against Indiana, and there's no doubt that memory will be a motivating factor for the Nittany Lions. But that might work in the Hoosiers' favor as well as they remember what happened in last season's shocking blowout, giving them belief that they really are capable of beating traditional powers that have always had their number in the past. Plus, Indiana gets them at home again as it looks to make a late push into bowl contention.
Key stat: Wynn's reputation as a game-breaker has spread throughout the Big Ten, and his return is a significant reason why there's not much belief the offense will suffer with Hughes, Latimer and Bolser now gone. But those three players combined for 154 receptions and 22 touchdowns last season, and that is a huge amount of production to replace for the guys stepping up to join Wynn in the starting rotation.
What they're wearing: The Hoosiers have proved to be pretty flexible with the designs on their helmets, and if Latimer's posts on social media before moving on to the NFL are any indication, more could be on the way.
They said it: "We're not expecting it to be lights out, but you just want to see some consistent, constant improvement." -- Wilson on the defense.
Stats & Info projections: 7.03 wins
Wise guys over-under: 5.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. The upgrades to the roster Wilson has made through better recruiting are starting to show up, and while the Hoosiers still have a long way to go before they can think about contending in the East Division, they are capable of taking the next step in front of them by punching a ticket to a bowl game. Sudfeld is in line to put up huge numbers now that the offense is his show alone, and if even modest improvements are made on defense, Indiana should be playing an extra game this year.
Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:
@BennettESPN It's an odd question but who do you think has a better chance of going undefeated this year, OSU or Iowa?— Samuel Robinson (@samtrobinson) July 24, 2014
Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.
Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.
I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.
Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...
Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.
Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?
Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.
Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?
Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.
The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.
As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.
Tweet us here and remember to use the hashtag #AskB1Gplayers.
Media days are, quite frankly, all talk, and some are better at it than others. The Big Ten might not match the SEC in coaching personalities, but there will be some quotable players and coaches next week in Chicago.
Here are five coaches and players who should fill up our notebooks next week:
Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes: There are several college coaches who make news just about every time they talk, and Meyer is one of them. Never one to recoil from hyperbole, Meyer will be asked about quarterback Braxton Miller, Ohio State's playoff hopes, bigger-picture issues affecting the game and possibly turning 50.
Kevin Wilson, Indiana Hoosiers: I've covered quite a few coaches in my career and few are as brutally honest as Wilson, a trait much appreciated by us scribes. Indiana football might not move the needle in the Big Ten or nationally, but you'll want to tune in to hear what Wilson has to say about the game's biggest issues.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats: Fitzgerald's charisma in front of microphones has endeared him to media and fans, although Nebraska fans are probably a bit ticked with him after his recent remarks. He usually provides some good media-day fodder from the podium and will undoubtedly weigh in more about the player unionization push at Northwestern.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Spartans: Some of you will think this is a misprint, but hear me out. I considered other insightful coaches like Jerry Kill and Gary Andersen, but Dantonio, often characterized as dry, actually has a lot of strong opinions. His voice also resonates more nationally after he won Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships last season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Kenny Bell: Media members owe a debt of gratitude to Nebraska for bringing Bell to Chicago. The man known on Twitter as AfroThunder can discuss just about anything, from the targeting rule to unionizing to topics that have nothing to do with college football.
Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun: He became a big name in the league last season by what he did on the field, but his magnetic personality didn't hurt his profile. Calhoun wears a six-bar face mask during games and turns into his alter ago, the villain Bane, on Saturdays in the fall.
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah: There's a reason Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at Tuesday's Big Ten kickoff luncheon. The Nebraska star running back has earned All-Big Ten honors for both his play and his academics. He's eloquent and thoughtful and should be the latest crowd pleaser at the luncheon.
Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon: One of the nice things about this year's media day player contingent is that several of the Big Ten's biggest stars are also excellent talkers. Gordon is extremely comfortable in the spotlight and will weigh in on the Heisman Trophy race, his friendship with Abdullah and his mission to lead Wisconsin to the inaugural playoff.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner: Gardner is smart and thoughtful and no stranger to the spotlight as a standout recruit and now Michigan's starting quarterback. The fifth-year senior, now working toward a master's degree, will be a popular man in Chicago as he weighs in on his unique career and a pivotal year for the Wolverines.