Big Ten: Ron Zook

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
12:00
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Pitchers and catchers report this week. Wish I could join them.
Football and marketing both rely on timing, and Illinois hopes its surprising on-field success in the first two games fuels a different type of blitz this weekend in Chicago.

For the first time in nearly two decades, Illinois will host a football game in the city it covets but rarely has captured, at least in recent years. Already at their victory total from last season, the Illini on Saturday take on No. 17 Washington at Soldier Field, making their first appearance on the lakefront since 1994 and just their second ever.

Billed as Illinois' Chicago Homecoming, the game caps off a weekend of events, including a luncheon with Dick Butkus, a Chicago native who launched his legend at Illinois and cemented it with the Chicago Bears. Butkus, a two-time All-American linebacker and Big Ten MVP who led the Illini to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win against Washington 50 years ago, also will toss the coin before the game.

"We need to do something for the Chicago area because so many kids are leaving the state," Butkus told ESPN.com. "I just feel Illinois, with the largest number of alumni in the city of any school, we should be able to do a better job of recruiting kids out of here. We've got guys going to LSU, USC, the Michigans, Ohio States and Notre Dames, and even Northwestern.

"We've got to get back to getting our own kids to go to our own school."

The school's promotional video for the game is appropriately set to Diddy's "Coming Home," in which Skylar Grey sings:

I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
.

It will take more than rain to wash away the pain from the 2012 season, when Illinois went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game, or forgive the program's inability to capitalize on a Rose Bowl run in 2007 and a series of elite players who became high NFL draft picks. But for the first time in more than a year, the sun shone on the Illini, whose 45-17 victory against a good Cincinnati team last Saturday couldn't have come at a better time.

"It was important, especially beating a very good football team," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told ESPN.com. "I know there's buzz around the program. You would think there would be an impact moving forward with the game this weekend."

While Grey sings of kingdoms, Thomas in August 2011 famously proclaimed that he wanted Illinois to become "king of Chicago." He had recently become Illinois' AD, and his ambitious approach made sense for a school with a huge alumni/fan presence in the market but one that had largely disappeared from the sporting radar, at least in football.

Illinois moved the needle to start the 2011 season, recording its first 6-0 start in 60 years. The Illini proceeded to make history of a different sort, dropping the rest of their regular-season games to become the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. The collapse cost coach Ron Zook his job, and Thomas' hiring of Tim Beckman -- after being rebuffed by Kevin Sumlin and others -- didn't inspire much excitement in Chicago and around the state.

And then the 2012 season happened, when nothing went right for Beckman and his team. The clunky campaign ended with a 50-14 loss at rival Northwestern, which had combined consistent on-field success with an effective marketing campaign ("Chicago's Big Ten team) to make a dent in Chicago's saturated sports market.

Illinois entered this season as a near-consensus last-place pick, and its homecoming game at Soldier Field -- scheduled before the 2012 season -- looked like a tough sell, if not an impossible one, to a fan base that, despite its size, puts basketball first and seems quick to dismiss the football program, even in better times.

That's why the Cincinnati win could be so important. It allowed Illinois fans, including those in the Chicago area, to feel good about their program for the first time in a while.

"It gives us a sense of an identity," said senior wide receiver Miles Osei, who grew up near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Ill. "People in the Chicago area and people that follow Illinois football can sense that. Maybe in the past they haven't had that much of an identity, but we're definitely establishing it."

When Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side, Illinois had a much stronger presence in the city. He remembers facing future Illini teammates such as Jim Grabowski and Gregg Schumacher in city playoff games.

Illinois coach Pete Elliott and his staff relentlessly recruited city players. Bill Taylor lured Butkus out of Vocational High School. But the slush-fund scandal in 1966 led to Elliott's resignation, followed by 13 losing seasons in the next 14 years.

Butkus recalls that most of Elliott's assistants went to work for Levi Strauss in sales after things fell apart in Champaign.

"Dammit, those guys knew how to sell," Butkus said. "They were a young group, just great guys. You wanted to play for 'em. We had talented guys. I just do not understand why we have a tough time recruiting out of here. I guess playing at Soldier Field, we're trying to get the presence going, but you've got to work the high schools."

Beckman and his assistants are trying to do just that. They held three camps in the area this summer and a spring scrimmage at Gately Stadium on the city's South Side.

Zook made local recruiting splashes with players such as Martez Wilson and Juice Williams, both Chicago natives (Williams also attended Vocational High). The pipeline to elite prospects since has dried up a bit, although Aaron Bailey, a four-star quarterback from Chicago suburb Bolingbrook, headlined the 2013 class.

"It's huge," Beckman said. "It's not like three guys are up there and they recruit Chicago. Every coach on this staff has a piece of Chicago, so that everybody in that city gets to meet our coaching staff, from quarterback coach to DB coach.

"We're not to where we want to be, but we’ve definitely made strides."

[+] EnlargeDick Butkus
AP PhotoDick Butkus (50) made 145 tackles and caused 10 fumbles in 1963, leading the Illini to a Big Ten title.
Asked why Chicago has posed such a challenge for Illinois, Butkus replied, "If I knew that answer, I'd be a goddamn genius."

"That's been baffling me for 48 years," he said. "I don't understand it."

He hopes the Chicago homecoming can be a starting point, and the mood around the game and the events undoubtedly will be better after the Cincinnati win. The hope is that the good feelings will translate into more butts in seats on Saturday.

As of Tuesday, Illinois was approaching 40,000 tickets sold, according to Jason Heggemeyer, the school's associate athletic director for ticketing and sales. Thomas said 50,000 "might be a little bit ambitious" but added that the school's Chicago-based fans often wait to buy tickets for events like Illinois' annual basketball game at the United Center. The walk-up crowd also could be good.

"You’d hope Saturday's win would resonate with a good number of people," Thomas said. "We haven't played up there since the early 90s."

The weekend will be a test run of sorts, as Thomas is interested in playing more football games in Chicago. After launching the "Illinois. Our State. Our Team" marketing campaign in August 2012 and forming a Chicago athletics advisory board in February, Thomas is looking for different and more aggressive ways to brand Illinois in the area.

"You can't take a day off," Thomas said. "Year in and year out, you've got to have a real presence up there, and I don't think in the past that's been the case."

Thomas is right about the recent past, but there was a time when Illinois football truly resonated in the Midwest's largest market. Butkus lived through it, and he wants to bring it back.

"Shoot, we'd all like to play in the BCS championship, but that's not where we're at right now," he said. "At least give the team some support. If they know of anybody or their own kids looking to play, why wouldn't you go to Illinois? It's a great school.

"We've just got to spread the word and get people more excited about it."
Nathan Scheelhaase is among the nation's most experienced quarterbacks, but his most defining moments at Illinois haven't occurred on Saturdays.

Scheelhaase has started 36 games, passed for 5,296 yards and 34 touchdowns, helped the Illini to two bowl victories, struggled during a disastrous 2-10 campaign last fall, and played for two head coaches and four offensive coordinators. He has had great games, like the blowout bowl win against a Baylor team quarterbacked by some guy named Griffin in 2010. He also has had low points, especially in 2012, when he led an offense that finished 119th out of 120 FBS teams in yards and points.

But if you want to know who Nathan Scheelhaase is, look beyond the numbers or the games. Look beyond the Block I on his helmet or the often-butchered name (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the back of his jersey. If you really want to know him, spend a Sunday at Stone Creek Church in Urbana, Ill., about two miles southeast of Memorial Stadium.

Go during the fall, smack in the middle of football season. He'll be there.

Nathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteQB Nathan Scheelhaase's faith has carried him through the highs and lows of his Illinois career.
"When you go through ups and downs of football, the greatest thing is to have a church that loves you every Sunday," Scheelhaase's mother, LouAnn, told ESPN.com. "Whether he won or lost the day before, Nathan never missed church on Sunday."

Former Illini assistant Reggie Mitchell, who recruited Scheelhaase, brought the quarterback to Stone Creek the first Sunday after Scheelhaase's arrival. It turned out to be the first phase of Scheelhaase's spiritual awakening.

Faith trumps football for the Illini senior, and his religious devotion has helped him navigate the challenging terrain in Champaign. Scheelhaase is prideful and public about his beliefs, from the eye-black crosses he wears on game days to the scripture passages he used to post on his Twitter page. He has drawn some criticism for sharing so much, but anything else would be like living in the dark.

"It's not the what that makes me different, it’s the who that makes me different, and that is God," he said. "If I didn't have God, I couldn't imagine what it would be like going through difficulties like there have been. That’s exactly what I rely on."

Scheelhaase grew up attending church but wasn't nearly as strong in his faith as he is now. He attended an all-boys Jesuit High School (Rockhurst) in Kansas City, Mo., and played for a coach (Tony Severino) who valued religion. After his senior season, he began dating Morgan Miller, an "amazing Christian," LouAnn said.

But it wasn't until Illinois that Scheelhaase turned a corner. He grew close to Marcellus Casey, Illinois' team chaplain at the time, and became a leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Scheelhaase bonded with teammates Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Ryan Lankford and Reilly O'Toole, who shared his devotion.

"Even growing up in a Christian school, I don't think it became real to him until his time at the university," said Justin Neally, an area representative for the local FCA chapter who serves as Illinois' team chaplain. "He was just going through the motions in high school. His faith might have been good luck charm at that time. It became his identity in college."

Neally recalls Scheelhaase telling him about his collegiate debut against Missouri at St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome in 2010. He completed just 9 of 23 passes and committed four turnovers in a 23-13 loss.

"The normal kid would feel a lot of pressure, but he stood with his faith and identity being secure," Neally said. "He said it wasn’t the greatest day for him statistically. He threw a couple picks, had a fumble, but he told me he never experienced so much joy."

Scheelhaase went on to lead Illinois to its first bowl win in 11 years. He soon recognized the public platform he occupied and decided to use it to display his faith.

He first sported the eye-black crosses for a 2011 home game against Michigan.

"I get kids that’ll come up to me, tell me my stats and say, 'I saw you on the sideline talking to such-and-such,'" Scheelhaase said. "I'm like, 'Man, these guys watch the game that closely. I might as well give them something even better to talk about.' That's exactly why I do it."

Scheelhaase would like to open spiritual doors, but those who know him say he doesn't force his beliefs on others.

His approach has sparked some backlash, and he and Neally often talk about former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who displayed Bible verses on his eye black, made Tebowing a national fad and became a polarizing cultural figure.

"This is something that's transformed Nathan's life," Neally said. "In no way he feels like it's mission to save people."

Added Scheelhaase: "There’s always going to be persecution of your beliefs when you're strong about them. It’s worth making someone ask a question or seek something out versus being hush-hush about it."

Hull, who roomed with Scheelhaase during their freshman year, has seen Scheelhaase's faith "pull him through his low moments." After a record-setting freshman season and a strong start to 2011, Illinois' offense flat-lined down the stretch, leading to the firing of coach Ron Zook.

The free-fall continued last season under new coach Tim Beckman.

"When you deal with some struggles, you learn a lot about yourself," Scheelhaase said. "Leadership is easy when things are going well. Character is shaped not when times are good and things are easy, but when you're dealing with tough times. It's a crazy thing to say you can take joy in struggles, but it's so true."

Recent months have brought happier times for Scheelhaase. In February, he flew to Texas, where Miller was attending school at TCU, and surprised her with a proposal. They were married July 6 back home in Kansas City.

"Seeing that ring on his finger is so different," said Hull, who along with O'Toole, Lankford and Osei served as Scheelhaase's groomsmen at the wedding. "When the engagement happened, we started hearing Nate talk about life and his plans and career path.

"It was weird because we started realizing we’re about to become real adults in the real world."

Scheelhaase's post-football future could include a career in religion. When Nathan and LouAnn returned last June to LouAnn's hometown of Moville, Iowa, he asked to speak at the local church, making his grandmother Norma "pretty darn proud."

"He lives right, he walks right, he does his thing, he’s a man," LouAnn said. "He’s been through emotional turmoil, physical and injury turmoil, the coaching changes, the ups and downs. He's still going to find his joy in everything.

"I don't know what this next chapter for him holds. I just know he’s well prepared for whatever he does."

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
12:00
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Like the Midsummer Classic, these links count:
The Big Ten is the last major conference to organize its schedule into two distinct sections: nonleague games and league games.

Aside from a few exceptions, Big Ten teams in recent years have completed all of their nonleague games in September before beginning league play in late September or early October. Conferences like the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC, meanwhile, all have scheduled league games for season openers in recent years. In 2009, Big East members Cincinnati and Rutgers kicked off the season against each other.

All the other major conferences sprinkle in league games throughout September, while the Big Ten typically has only nonleague matchups in the first four weeks. One downside of the Big Ten’s setup is the potential for Saturdays lacking compelling matchups. Typically, one Big Ten Saturday in September is a total snooze fest.

Former Big Ten coaches Bret Bielema (Wisconsin) and Ron Zook (Illinois) have advocated for the Big Ten to schedule some league games earlier. Wisconsin last summer announced it would move a 2013 game against Purdue from Oct. 26 to Sept. 21, to accommodate a nonleague game against BYU for Nov. 9. The Badgers and Boilers will open Big Ten play a week earlier than the other 10 teams this fall.

Could we see more of these games in the future? Big Ten athletic directors seem open to the idea.

Although sorting the “how” question -- how many league games the Big Ten will have in the future -- will be the priority when the ADs convene in the coming months, the "when" question also should gain some attention.

"You have the ability to do it now, it's just never been a priority," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "By going to nine or 10 [league games], it pushes it even more realistically. If you go to 10, you will be playing in September. I would like to see more neutral sites in those scenarios

Smith mentioned Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and new stadiums near Rutgers and Maryland as potential destinations.

Earlier league games hardly are unprecedented in the Big Ten, which paired its teams for season openers and other September contests in the 1970s and early 1980s. Wisconsin, for example, opened 11 consecutive seasons against league opponents from 1972-82.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta noted that earlier league games have both pros and cons and must be weighed in the context of the total number of conference games played. A schedule featuring eight, nine or perhaps 10 consecutive conference games can take a toll, even with an open week, and Big Ten teams, like their counterparts in the SEC, could benefit from having an easier game later in the season.

On the flip side, many coaches view the nonleague schedule as the time to prepare and build their teams for Big Ten play. A change in philosophy means Big Ten teams would have to be ready for league play a lot earlier.

"We've played Notre Dame the first game of the season, and that's no different than a conference game, in my opinion, in the order of magnitude and importance,” Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "To me, the more challenging the opponent, the less problems you have with kids overlooking the opponent."

I’ve always liked the idea of earlier league games. A full Big Ten slate on Sept. 10 isn’t necessary, but 1-2 league games the first few Saturdays would make the overall slate a lot more appealing.
We can all agree Illinois coach Tim Beckman took the wrong approach in trying to pry players away from Penn State in the wake of last summer's sanctions.

Even Beckman, injected with some truth serum, likely would acknowledge the Illini should have been more subtle.

But Beckman's ultimate goal with the endeavor -- to boost depth on his roster -- was completely understandable. Illinois lacked the scholarship numbers of many of its Big Ten brethren. As injuries began piling up during the season, Illinois' depth issues became magnified. Those issues remain entering the offseason.

Beckman isn't planning a second raid attempt on Penn State. Instead, he and his assistants have turned their attention toward the junior-college ranks.

Illinois has secured commitments from five junior college players, by far the most in the Big Ten. It's the largest juco haul Illinois has had since the Mike White era in the early 1980s. According to The (Champaign) News-Gazette, Beckman's predecessor Ron Zook brought in eight junior college players in seven seasons.

And Beckman is far from through.

From The News-Gazette:
Beckman's goal is to bring in as many as eight JC transfers.

"The way to push this program forward, and the way I've seen it done, is with people," Beckman said Friday after returning from another of his recruiting trips. "We have a lack of depth in our upper classes, and we need to get more quality players involved. There are opportunities for players on this team, and we have to surround them with new additions. We accumulated junior college transcripts and brought them in so the university could tell us the ones that they thought would be successful academically here. We've had a good response in this area."

Beckman told the newspaper that along with five high school recruits expected to enroll early, Illinois should have 10-13 early enrollees in January. The Illini have only a handful of fifth-year seniors, and their freshman class also is fairly small.

Some might scoff at the juco strategy, which isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other power conferences. There are definite risks with juco players, although many pan out. But Beckman has little choice given Illinois' depth concerns, and because of the pressure he'll face to win in Year 2 after a disastrous 2-10 campaign this fall.

Illinois could sign the largest class in the Big Ten in February. ESPN Recruiting currently ranks Illinois' class seventh in the Big Ten and 39th nationally .
Penn State's Bill O'Brien and Ohio State's Urban Meyer are among the 10 finalists for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award.

The award is selected by fan voting, as well as a committee of more than 50 College Football Hall of Fame players and coaches, and national college football media members. To vote, go here and then sign into Twitter. Voting continues through Dec. 20.

The FBS winner will be announced Jan. 7 in advance of the Discover BCS National Championship.

O'Brien won both Big Ten Coach of the Year awards after guiding Penn State to an 8-4 record. Meyer led his Ohio State team to a 12-0 mark, just the sixth undefeated and untied season in team history.

The other finalists are: Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Jim Mora, Jr. (UCLA), Nick Saban (Alabama), Mark Richt (Georgia), Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Charlie Strong (Louisville), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson).

Former Illinois coach Ron Zook (2007) is the only Big Ten coach to have won the award. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill won the FCS award while at Southern Illinois in 2007.
Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was a victim of his own success when it came to winning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Tressel never claimed the award despite dominating the league during most of his Buckeyes tenure. If Tressel had a down year midway through his run at Ohio State, only to get the team back to a league title or a BCS bowl the following year, he would have had a better chance.

In many ways, the Big Ten Coach of the Year award is about what happened the previous season or the previous offseason rather than the actual season for which the honor is presented. Recent history also shows first-year coaches who bolster programs have a good chance for the award.

Urban Meyer
Pat Lovell/US PresswireUrban Meyer led the Buckeyes to a rare 12-0 season in his first season at Ohio State.
And that's why Ohio State coach Urban Meyer might never win it.

Penn State's Bill O'Brien on Tuesday swept the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors -- the Hayes-Schembechler award (voted by the coaches) and the Dave McClain award (voted by the media). O'Brien guided Penn State to an 8-4 record in his first season.

He beat out another first-year Big Ten coach, Meyer, who went 12-0 in his first season in Columbus, including a road win against O'Brien's Lions. Buckeye fans were hopeful Meyer would be the first Ohio State boss to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Meyer's mentor Earle Bruce got it in 1979.

O'Brien's selection stems primarily from the way he kept Penn State afloat after a turbulent summer that brought severe NCAA sanctions on the program, followed by the departures of several key players, including star running back Silas Redd. After an 0-2 start that had many writing off Penn State for the foreseeable future, O'Brien guided Penn State to wins in eight of its final 10 games (6-2 in Big Ten play).

Although Penn State actually won more games in the previous season -- the Lions' nine wins later were vacated -- O'Brien's work under such unusual circumstances made him a deserving candidate.

But it begs the question: Will Meyer ever win the award?

Unless Ohio State takes a surprising step backward during his tenure, probably not.

Let's look at the recent winners of the McClain Award.

Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011

Backstory: Michigan went 7-6 in 2010 under coach Rich Rodriguez, who was fired following the Gator Bowl after a historically poor three-year run. Hoke came in from San Diego State and guided Michigan to an 11-1 record and a Sugar Bowl championship.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, 2010

Backstory: Michigan State tumbled to a 6-7 finish in 2009 and had a highly publicized off-field issue that decimated its roster for the Alamo Bowl. Dantonio guided the Spartans to an 11-1 regular-season mark in 2010.

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, 2009

Backstory: Iowa improved from 9-4 in 2008 to 11-2 in 2009 and won an Orange Bowl championship. The 2009 season truly showed the Hawkeyes had escaped a down stretch from 2005-07.

Joe Paterno, Penn State, 2008

Backstory: Penn State went from 9-4 the previous season to an 11-1 regular-season mark, a Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl (all wins later were vacated). The Lions were in the national title talk for much of the 2008 campaign.

Ron Zook, Illinois, 2007

Backstory: Illinois went from 2-10 in 2006 (4-19 in Zook's first two seasons) to a Rose Bowl berth in 2007. The Illini knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin 2006

Backstory: Bielema was in his first year as a head coach and led Wisconsin to an 11-1 record in the regular season (12-1 following a bowl victory).

Joe Paterno, Penn State, 2005

Backstory: The Lions had endured losing seasons in three of the previous four years, and calls for Paterno's retirement had increased. He then shocked everyone by guiding Penn State to a Big Ten championship and an Orange Bowl title (both later vacated).

See the pattern here?

The award either goes to first-year coaches or coaches who have bolstered a team's win total from the previous season.

Meyer did both at Ohio State, which went from 6-7 in 2011 to 12-0 this season. But O'Brien ultimately was judged to have overcome more challenges at Penn State.

Tressel's best chance for the award came in 2002, when Ohio State went from 7-5 in his first season to a 13-0 regular-season mark (and an eventual national title). But Iowa's Kirk Ferentz instead earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors for guiding Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title a year after going 7-5.

Ferentz topping Tressel in 2002 reminds me a lot of O'Brien topping Meyer this season.

Given the trajectory of Ohio State's program under Meyer and the standard set by the 2012 team, it seems unlikely the Buckeyes will take a big step backward -- so Meyer can then bring them forward and win the award -- any time soon.

Meyer has won two national titles and several top coaching honors, including the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award in 2004. But don't be surprised if like Tressel, he'll go through his Ohio State career without ever being named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
4:30
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Hope you enjoy the games Saturday.

Jerome from Toronto writes: Now that the ACC has said they're only going to have 8 league games, what are the chances that the B1G and ACC reach an agreement on scheduling a series with each other? Obviously, the ACC will have two teams that will sit out each year since the conferences have a different total of teams in each league. This may be a good way to help get the B1G exposure down in the South and also on the East Coast. Your prediction on this becoming a reality?

Adam Rittenberg: Jerome, this is an interesting proposal. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany really likes partnerships with other leagues, which is why he was so disappointed when the Pac-12 pact didn't work out. Delany would be cautious about doing another scheduling partnership -- he'd need assurances from the other league that they wouldn't back out. But I do strongly believe if the Big Ten went down this road again, it would be with the ACC rather than the SEC or Big 12. The two leagues are a lot more similar, especially now with Notre Dame, which has historic Big Ten rivalries. Although the Pac-12 situation shows how difficult it is to get everyone on board, Delany definitely doesn't close the door to partnerships, whether it's in football or basketball.




Ben from Burlingame, Calif., writes: I'm curious to get your thoughts on William Gholston being knocked out cold during the MSU-Ohio St. game and then going back into the game shortly thereafter. I know MSU says that he only had the wind knocked out of him, but to anybody who saw that incident, it's not a remotely plausible explanation. Gholston didn't move an inch for quite awhile after the play and it seemed pretty obvious he was out cold and was shaking off serious cobwebs when he finally walked off the field. With all of the additional scrutiny on head injuries, helmet to helmet hits and concussions these days I was absolutely stunned the MSU allowed him back in the game. I'm even more surprised that nobody seems to be talking about it and that Dantonio and company don't seem to be getting any heat about it. Is this a case of the staff putting a 'W' too high on the priority list or am I way off base?

Adam Rittenberg: Ben, a lot of folks are talking about this incident. It certainly looked like Gholston got knocked out after colliding with a teammate. I talked to him on Wednesday and he reiterated that he just had the wind knocked out of him. Whether he's telling the truth or not is up to you to believe. Ultimately, Michigan State's athletic training staff has a huge responsibility to the player -- not to clear him unless it's safe, especially when a potential head injury is involved. Gholston wouldn't have played unless he received clearance from the staff. It looked like they put him through the necessary tests. But like many of you, I was very surprised to see him back on the field so soon.




Jeremy from Dayton, Ohio, writes: With the season progressing and the big ten looking like it does. Its hard to look past my nittany lions who are hitting their stride and getting the Obrien offense down. my question is Could the Big Ten game of the year be in Happy Valley when OSU comes to town? and Could this decide who wins the division? (neither team could play in the title game though)

Adam Rittenberg: Jeremy, it definitely could decide the division champ, especially if both teams win tough games Saturday. And who knows, maybe it'll feature the league's top two teams as well. While that's not the desirable scenario for the Big Ten -- having its best two teams being ineligible for the bowls -- it might be the reality. I still think teams like Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State will improve during October and November and be pretty good by bowl season. But Ohio State is finding ways to win and Penn State has rebounded really nicely from its 0-2 start. Wisconsin clearly isn't the same team it was in 2010-11, and while Purdue has shown flashes, the Boilers need to prove they can beat good teams. My sense is that Ohio State and Penn State are the class of the Leaders division, but that there's more overall strength in the Legends, which will produce the league champion.




Nick from Columbus writes: The expectations for Michigan were ridiculously high coming in to the season and I think it was naive to think they could be even better than (or equal to) last year's team. With that being said they already have 2 losses and haven't even faced a big ten opponent. Is this game a must-win for Michigan to "salvage" their season and have a shot at a big ten championship?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a huge game, Nick, especially because Michigan still has an even tougher road crossover game Nov. 24 at Ohio State. A loss drops Michigan to 2-3 on the season, increases the Wolverines' issues on the road and creates a potential situation where they have to run the table in the Legends division. Now it's important to note that Michigan State already has a Big Ten loss (Ohio State), and Nebraska visits the Buckeyes on Saturday night. I still think the division winner comes out of that Michigan/MSU/Nebraska group, and the team that plays best on the road -- both within the division and in crossovers -- has the best chance to make it to Indy. But from a confidence standpoint, Michigan needs to bounce back from the Notre Dame loss with a strong performance at Purdue. Although a win in West Lafayette might not turn heads around the Big Ten, it'll give Michigan a boost before potentially tougher road tests at Nebraska and then Ohio State.




Pete from Fort Worth, Texas, writes: Adam, why is it that Braxton Miller is receiving more Heisman hype than Taylor Martinez? Martinez is ahead of Miller in most statistical categories (only behind in rushing yards and scores really). Martinez has a better completion percentage, better TD/INT ratio, and is more efficient. What gives? And could the game this weekend perhaps change the tide?

Adam Rittenberg: Several reasons explain the hype differential, Pete. For starters, Miller entered the season with more hype than Martinez because of Urban Meyer's arrival and his fit in Meyer's spread offense. Martinez was known as a guy who took a step back in 2011 and had a bad throwing motion. Not saying it's right, but this was the national perception of the two players before the season. Miller also has made more highlight-type plays, especially with his feet, than Martinez. Although Martinez showed last week that he can still gash defenses as a runner, he didn't do that much in the non-league games. The more highlight plays Martinez pulls off as a runner, especially in crunch time, the better his chance will be for an award like the Heisman. Martinez still has to overcome the UCLA performance, but he can with big games down the stretch, beginning Saturday night in Columbus. To answer your last question, Martinez can absolutely turn the tide if he outplays Miller and Nebraska beats Ohio State. He'd also be helped by leading the Huskers on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Miller has been extremely clutch so far this season, while Martinez is 1-1 in those opportunities (loss to UCLA, win against Wisconsin).




Teddy from Decatur, Ill., writes: Adam, at some point during this season do I have the right to say we need a new coach at Illinois? To me personal foul calls, a porous defense, no idea what we do on offense and overall just a poorly disciplined team is a sign of bad coaching. Yes, I know he hasn't recruited a single class of his own but Bill O'Brien and Urban Meyer don't seem to be doing too shabby. Beckman, however, seems to have done nothing with a solid defense (with NFL potentials) and can't seem to get the offense going. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Teddy, I completely understand your disappointment in Tim Beckman so far. Illinois definitely is trending in the wrong direction despite back-to-back bowl seasons. That said, no coach should be fired after one season. He needs more time to get things on track -- not much more time, but certainly more than a single season. What hurt Beckman in my view is him bringing so few of his assistants with him from Toledo and bringing together a staff from all over the country. It's hard to find the right cohesion in Year 1 when the staff hasn't been together. While it's no an excuse to be blown out at home like Illinois has been, it explains some of the mistakes. I do think Beckman and his staff will recruit well, but good recruiting hasn't mattered at Illinois (i.e. the Ron Zook era) without strong coaching to complement it. So while it's too soon to talk about a change in Champaign, Illinois needs to start looking like a more cohesive team as Big Ten play progresses.




Tad from Omaha writes: Adam - What are the television windows for 10/20? Just trying to project the Northwestern-Nebraska game time.

Adam Rittenberg: Tad, the complete schedule of game times and TV for Oct. 20 will be finalized Monday (Oct. 8). The only two games set already are Indiana at Navy (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports) and Penn State at Iowa (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network). Check the blog Monday around 11:30 ET for the complete schedule.




Wayne from New York writes: Adam....across the college football world I think you are the only one I have seen pick Nebraska to win against OSU. Do you know something we don't or..... did you just say no to the OSU Kool-Aid everyone else is drinking?

Adam Rittenberg: The only one? Really? Maybe I'll be wrong, but I think Nebraska is poised to finally turn the corner as a program. And I also think Ohio State, while deserving credit for being 5-0, has been pretty fortunate to this point, overcoming turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Nebraska is by far the best offense Ohio State has faced. The Huskers will make the Buckeyes make plays in space, where they've struggled early this season. It's tough to go against Miller Time, but I like the Huskers in the upset.

Penn State was supposed to fall apart after a nightmarish offseason, a historic coaching transition, a seemingly crippling mid-summer roster reduction and an 0-2 start.

Illinois entered the season following back-to-back bowl wins and, despite a coaching change, boasted one of the league's better defenses and a talented roster.

The teams' positions have flipped five games into the season. Penn State continued to roll Saturday with its third consecutive win, taking control early and cruising to a 35-7 win at Memorial Stadium. Led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin, the Lions continued to execute well on both sides of the ball.

Penn State is the hottest team in the Leaders division -- and perhaps the Big Ten. The Lions should be 4-1, and really have played just one bad half all season. Coach Bill O'Brien is doing a fantastic job.

Not surprisingly, O'Brien and Illinois coach Tim Beckman had a very brief handshake after the game. This one was personal for O'Brien after Beckman's summer roster poaching attempts, but his team played with the right type of emotion and overwhelmed Beckman's Illini.

Illinois looked completely lifeless early on, made a brief rally in the third quarter but couldn't fully turn the corner against Penn State, which left the door open a little longer than O''Brien would have liked. After committing six turnovers last week against Louisiana Tech, the Illini had three giveaways Saturday, and never truly got in the game on their home field.

Mauti has been the Big Ten's top linebacker and arguably the league's top defender through the first five weeks. He had another huge performance Saturday with two interceptions, including one he returned for 99 yards just before halftime, setting a team record for longest interception return. You knew Mauti would play inspired ball after everything that happened this summer, and he has stepped up in a big way.

McGloin continued his surprising start, picking apart Illinois' defense for 211 pass yards and adding three rushing touchdowns. It was nice to see McGloin get more receivers involved besides Allen Robinson, as tight end Matt Lehman (5 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD) had a big day. The Lions' offensive line also imposed its will near the goal line, and Zach Zwinak (19 carries, 100 rush yards, 2 TDs) turned in a very nice performance.

Illinois has to be shaken after its third blowout loss of the season, its second at home. The Illini have been outscored 87-31 in their past eight quarters. I thought their defense would fare better against a non-spread offense. Illinois' offense, meanwhile, continues to sputter. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put up some decent passing numbers (270 yards), but he had two more interceptions, and couldn't get the team in the end zone while the game was still in doubt.

Special teams miscues were a major problem for Illinois under Ron Zook, and they continued Saturday. A fumbled punt return set up Penn State's first touchdown, and Illinois also missed a short field-goal try.

With upcoming trips to Wisconsin and Michigan, Illinois could be headed for a long season.

Penn State, meanwhile, heads home to Happy Valley riding high.

Big Ten mailblog

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
3:30
PM ET
Your questions, my answers.

Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hi Adam, In your opinion how much of the Penn State loss can be attributed to nerves? Or, from the crash of a huge energy burst at the start? Also, was it me, or did Matt McGloin seem tenative to throw deep? He threw maybe 5-6 deep passes, but seemed to hesitate in the pocket to throw deep. I know the offense is based upon short passes, but once Ohio took that away in the second half McGloin apparently hesitant to go downfield. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, I think you're right about an energy dip after the start of the game -- and certainly after what should have been a Penn State interception turned into an Ohio touchdown in the third quarter. You just felt the entire stadium deflate after that play. Lions defensive tackle Jordan Hill said today, "We lost some of our energy in the second half. We have to keep that up the whole game." That will be a big key at Virginia, and, in a way, Penn State should have an easier time because there was so much buildup for the opener. As for McGloin, he looked comfortable with the short routes, which were working early on. But I agree that you need to mix in some longer passes at times, if only to show the defense that they're in the playbook. Penn State doesn't have proven receivers, but Allen Robinson looked like a guy who has taken a big step. It wouldn't surprise me to see Robinson used on some more vertical routes against Virginia. But you also have to set up longer passes with runs, and Penn State didn't run the ball well enough -- or much at all -- against Ohio. Establishing a better run game will be key going forward.

Evan from Bradenton, Fla., writes: Adam, I resend my earlier comments about disagreeing with you on you placement of the Illini in a better bowl than Purdue. I say this because Purdue will now be plague with slow starts, untimely sacks, poorly thrown deep balls, tunnel vision, and point differentials that are too big to overcome. For the life of me, I don't understand Danny Hope's decision to start TerBush over Marve. We (the fans) have been wanting Marve to start every since he arrived, but will Danny Hope give the fans what they want? I think we all know the answer to that.

Adam Rittenberg: Evan, I understand your frustration, and it's echoed by many Purdue fans. The concern I had about Marve was his health and whether he could perform at 100 percent. He looked good against Eastern Kentucky and clearly has the most natural of ability of any Purdue quarterback. On the flip side, TerBush didn't do anything to lose the job on the field in camp, at least according to the coaches. Danny Hope said Tuesday that TerBush, "outperformed the other quarterbacks, hands down," in practice. The main concern with Marve is turnovers, as he has had quite a few during his career, including as many interceptions (10) as touchdown passes at Purdue. While TerBush isn't flashy, he had more than twice as many touchdown strikes (13) as interceptions (6) in 2011. I see this as Hope wanting the lower-risk option on the road against Notre Dame. It's not an uncommon approach. But you can make the argument that Purdue needs to make big plays to win this game, and that Marve gives the offense the best chance to do so.

Kyle from Denton, Texas, writes: Adam,Hey do you think the Big Ten should change it's scheduling from starting conference play in Week 5 to starting conference play in say Week 1 or 2? It seems like almost every other conference does this. It allows their teams to not have to run a gauntlet of a schedule, and allows for some early exposure of big marque games on National Television early in the season. The SEC does it, and they've had the last 6 National Titles. Seems like they may be on to something by letting their teams have a break later in the season rather than have them try to run a gauntlet schedule.

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, I completely agree that the Big Ten should do this as soon as possible (the schedules are set through 2016, so it'd be the 2017 season). Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has been the most vocal advocate to have some league games earlier. He wants the Big Ten to mirror the SEC's scheduling model, which creates some buzz early in the season with a handful of league games, and also gives teams a bit of a break later in the season with a non-league opponent. He told me in July, "They [the SEC] front-load the schedule. I saw they released their September games, and everyone goes gaga over those games. Well, we could have the same effect if the Big Ten would play them in September." Wisconsin and Purdue moved their 2013 game from Oct. 26 to Sept. 21.

Former Illinois coach Ron Zook also was in favor of this, and several athletic directors I've talked with see the benefits. The Big Ten doesn't benefit from weeks with only 1-2 decent non-league games, and while the overall quality of non-league scheduling is improving in the league, it'd be nice to see 1-2 league contests on the second, third and fourth Saturdays of the season. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany recently told a Nebraska radio program that he's open to the idea of scheduling league games earlier, so I think there's a decent chance this happens.

Matt from Midway, N.C., writes: Adam, last year no Buckeye receiver had more than 14 receptions. Already, Corey "Philly" Brown has 7 receptions after just 1 game. What are realistic expections for the Buckeye recievers this year and does Brown have a real chance of being an elite receiver in the B1G this year?

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, the expectations should be much higher for not only Brown but the entire Buckeyes receiving corps. Their numbers undoubtedly will go up after last season, and it wouldn't surprise me if Ohio State ended up with three players recording 30 or more receptions this fall. Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner should end up being quarterback Braxton Miller's top targets this season. Players like Evan Spencer are in the mix as well. Let's give it a few more weeks to see if Brown is Miller's No. 1 target/possession guy. But if Brown keeps up this production against better competition, he'll be in the mix for postseason honors, especially at arguably the Big Ten's weakest position.

Jack from Santa Fe, N.M., writes: Two quick questions:1) Are you and Brian going to do the weekly Big Ten podcast this season? They were awesome last year.2) Given that Michigan's coordinators seemed a bit lost, do you think Brady Hoke should have put on a headset at some point and talked to Al Borges about adjusting Michigan's play selection, or gone down the field and talked Greg Mattison about defensive schemes. I doubt this would have made a difference regarding the final result, Alabama was going to win no matter what. However, Michigan's offense and defense looked about the same from the beginning of the game through the end. If you are going to beat Nick Saban, you have to surprise him. Its highly unlikely that you will out-muscle or out-talent Alabama. Plus with the camera-panning to Al Borges, who looked completely flabbergasted, isn't this the time you want to step back and talk things over as a head coach?

Adam Rittenberg: Jack, to answer your first question, yes! We're very excited for the return of the Big Ten podcast this week. We record our first one Wednesday, and it should be posted later that night or Thursday morning. Be sure and tune in, as it'll be an improved version. As for your second question, while it's weird to see a head coach in 2012 who doesn't wear a headset, Hoke knows what he's doing and puts a lot of faith in both Borges and Mattison to do their thing. Neither coordinator is a rookie play-caller, and while I'm sure Hoke has ways of relaying messages, his approach seems fine. I also don't know if you beat Saban by surprising him. Sure, maybe you can once or twice, but if you're completely overmatched at the line of scrimmage, as Michigan was on both sides of the ball, schematics simply aren't going to matter.

Steve from Milwaukee writes: What do you base your power rankings on? Is it which teams you think are the best or which teams are playing the best right now? I remember last year or the year before there was a lot of whining by readers no matter what you did and I don't remember what the final verdict was. If it's how the team is playing right now, how is Wisconsin ahead of OSU after squeaking out a 5 point win at home vs a far inferior team? (especially if so little separates the top few as you say)

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Steve. After we get a few games into the season, the power rankings really are based on how a given team is performing at the moment. The first few sets of rankings -- which, much like the preseason polls, are utterly useless but fun nonetheless -- are based more on factors like competition, how we feel the teams will eventually end up, etc. We're just trying to get a feel for these teams right now, and at least for me, it takes a few games and ideally a good opponent or two to provide that gauge. When we do, it'll be how teams are performing at that given time. I knew Ohio State fans would be a bit ticked off by today's rankings, but it's based more on facing Miami (Ohio) and the fact that Wisconsin and Michigan both looked stronger entering the season. Now if both the Badgers and Wolverines struggle this week and Ohio State pounds a good Central Florida team, you'll see some movement in the rankings. And you'll see shuffling pretty much every week. Also, we try to match up the Big Ten rankings with our votes in the ESPN.com Top 25. We both had Wisconsin still ahead of Ohio State, and we wanted to be consistent here.

Ryan from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: Hi Adam,Whew that was a wild week 1 for the Big 10! I have a question concerning Iowa and Wisconsin. 1.) Who should be more concerned after week 1? It seems like Iowa's question marks were their strengths and there strengths were their weaknesses. And it looks like Wisconsin just plain let up. Did it seem to you like Iowa kept it pretty plain and simple on offense? I only remember them throwing 1 ball of 15 yards or further down field.. definitely not what I was expecting from our passing game, but I was encouraged with what I saw from Bullock. And the last question I have.. How come Wisconsin didn't get punished in the polls for their narrow escape? Back in 09' when UNI about upset Iowa; Iowa was dropped from the polls and didn't return for about 3 weeks after.. I know its only week 1 and its hard to take a lot away from some of the performances.. But I would like to get your take... AND WE'RE OFF!!

Adam Rittenberg: I'd be a little more concerned about Wisconsin because the Badgers have a higher ceiling than the Hawkeyes and have set their sights on another trip to Pasadena. If certain things don't get tightened up on defense, Wisconsin will have a tough time getting there. Iowa can come away from the opener feeling pretty good about two potential problem areas in running back and defensive line. The Hawkeyes still need much more from James Vandenberg and should put up more than 18 points, but I wasn't discouraged by what I saw from a young team. I agree Iowa needs to stretch the field more and get a few of its wideouts to step up. It will be interesting to see what Greg Davis does this week against Iowa State, which played very good defense in the final three quarters of its win against Tulsa. As for Wisconsin in the polls, I'm a little surprised the Badgers didn't drop more, but it's not as if too many teams directly behind the Badgers had really impressive opening performances. This is a big week for Wisconsin as Oregon State, while certainly not the program it has been in years past, can be very tricky on its home field.
When the Big Ten's scheduling alliance with the Pac-12 crashed and burned July 13, it created a new set of headaches for Big Ten athletic directors.

They had been asked by league commissioner Jim Delany to hold off on scheduling games for the 2017 season and beyond -- a moratorium of sorts -- so that the Pac-12 alliance could be set up. Many Big Ten teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan, to name a few -- scheduled Pac-12 opponents in advance of the alliance, in part because of Delany's nudging. While many of those contracts still will be honored, the Pac-12 alliance added structure to scheduling in the distant future.

Things are cloudy again.

"It was an obvious disappointment," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. "There was an excitement beyond just football and basketball with the possibilities that could take place. We had put so much into the collaboration with the Pac-12, and now that's off the table, so we all need to step back and make some decisions about our future."

Several big decisions could be made this week as Big Ten athletic directors gather in Chicago for preseason meetings. Scheduling will be a major topic on their agenda. The ADs simply can't afford to drag their feet on future scheduling issues.

Among the questions to be asked:

  • Should the Big Ten maintain an eight-game conference schedule or go to nine games? The Big Ten announced a move to nine league games last August, but shelved the plan when the Pac-12 alliance surfaced late last fall.
  • Should the Big Ten consider playing league games earlier in the season? Most major conferences play league games in early to mid September -- some even play them in season openers -- while most Big Ten teams complete their nonconference schedules before opening league play.
  • How should the Big Ten schedule for a playoff environment? Schedule strength will be a factor for the football selection committee, but a schedule loaded with difficult opponents could cost teams in their quest for the crystal football.
  • Should the Big Ten revisit a scheduling alliance with another conference?

Let's look at each issue ...

CONFERENCE GAMES: 8, 9 ... 10?


This topic likely will get the most discussion in Chicago. Although the Big Ten's ADs agreed to a nine-game league schedule last summer, they might not go down that road again.

Hollis and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips both have reservations about nine-game league schedules because of the imbalance they create with home and away games.

"That's hard to swallow when you're trying to define a true champion," Phillips told ESPN.com "But we don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes scheduling isn't perfect. My preference is eight right now, but I haven't heard what other folks have had to say."

Hollis acknowledges that other major conferences, like the Pac-12 and Big 12, play nine league games. The ACC is going to a nine-game league schedule when it expands to 14 teams.

Although nine-game league schedules typically increase teams' overall schedule strength and make it easier to sell tickets to home games, they have drawbacks.

"The biggest issue I have with it is the inequity with a conference championship," Hollis said. "In college football, I think it's about a 60-40 ratio of home team winning vs. visiting team winning. When you get to the end of the season, and a team is winning a championship because they have five home games vs. four, it's something I have pretty big concerns with. ... If you look at the end of the year and you have two rivals that are separated by one game, there’s going to be some bad feelings."

[+] EnlargeMark Hollis
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, left, is concerned about the inequalities a nine-game league schedule would bring.
Hollis prefers "an even number" of league home games and league away games -- meaning eight or 10. He acknowledges a 10-game league schedule would restrict teams from scheduling blockbuster nonleague opponents, but it would balance home and away games, and allow Big Ten teams to play one another more, not less.

A 10-game league schedule might not be realistic. It certainly wouldn't sit well with Big Ten football coaches, who opposed the initial move to nine league games.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema noted that the SEC, winner of the past six national titles, plays an eight-game league schedule, although that soon could change.

"Nine games changes things dramatically," Bielema told ESPN.com. "I hope we stay with an eight-game format. That's what the SEC uses, and that's the model everybody's chasing right now. That's the part that gets frustrating when anybody starts talking about nine conference games. The beloved SEC doesn't have that, and we don't want to jump into that world, either."

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is "on the same page" with Bielema about the conference games issue.

My take: Don't be shocked if the Big Ten eventually goes to nine league games, but the thinking since the announcement last August seems to have shifted quite a bit.

EARLIER BIG TEN GAMES

Bielema also would like the Big Ten to mimic what the SEC and other conference do with league games earlier in the season. Both he and former Illinois coach Ron Zook brought up the idea last year, noting it would give the Big Ten showcase games every week in September and prevent some of the sorry September Saturdays we've seen in recent years.

The movement needs a jolt, however, as the Big Ten schedules through the 2016 season essentially follow the traditional format: most if not all nonconference games first, followed by a full league slate.

"They [the SEC] front-load the schedule," Bielema said. "I saw they released their September games, and everyone goes gaga over those games. Well, we could have the same effect if the Big Ten would play them in September. I would much rather go that road than playing nine [league games], because it gives you an opportunity to get two out-of-conference, BCS opponents [on the schedule], travel to one and play one at home. That would bring a lot of excitement."

While moving Big Ten games earlier didn't have much traction before, the end of the Pac-12 alliance creates "a whole different scenario" with scheduling, Bielema said.

"I think we'll talk about it," Phillips said. "I'm for whatever creates the most interest and is best for the fans. If that allows us to have some better games for the fans earlier in the year, I'm all for that."

Hollis, an out-of-the-box scheduling wizard who helped create unbelievable moments like this, also is open to the topic, although he wants any change to be made for the right reasons.

"If you do shake it up, how are you shaking it up?" he said. "Why are you shaking it up? Are you doing it for television? Are you doing it for strength of schedule? I'm open to looking at things like that. I think those are all things we have to turn over."

SCHEDULING FOR A PLAYOFF ENVIRONMENT

A playoff comes to college football in 2014, and major conference athletic directors must be cognizant of it in crafting their teams' schedules. The selection committee will look for teams that have challenged themselves outside their leagues, but overly taxing schedules often remove teams from the playoff picture.

In the current BCS environment, a Big Ten team likely has to run the table to reach the title game. While perfection might not be required to qualify for a four-team playoff, a lot of good 1-loss teams are sure to be left out.

"You kind of have two parallels going," Hollis said. "It's kind of a given that to win a conference championship right now, with rare exception, you need to go undefeated. If you go undefeated, you have a shot to play for a national championship. Well, playing Alabama and Notre Dame selectively in our nonconference schedule [as Michigan State does in 2016 and 2017] isn't real conducive to the odds of winning 12 games. As [the playoff] goes forward and they talk about how the process is going to work, that's an important component."

ANOTHER SCHEDULING ALLIANCE

The Big Ten will be cautious about pursuing another scheduling alliance after the Pac-12 pact fell apart, but the league isn't ruling it out. Remember that the Big Ten/Pac-12 agreement fizzled because several Pac-12 schools ultimately didn't get on board. All 12 Big Ten schools were willing, and if the Big Ten can find a league with the same across-the-board commitment, it could seek another agreement.

"I don't know what shape or form that's going to result in," Hollis said, "but obviously playing games against opponents in the ACC, opponents in the Pac-12, opponents in the Big 12 and many of us are already doing the SEC, it's so complicated. If we could get some organization into it, I think it could be a positive."

A potential problem: number of conference games. Had the Pac-12 played an eight-game league schedule like the Big Ten, the alliance would have worked, sources told ESPN.com. With the Pac-12, Big 12 and, eventually, ACC, at nine league games, a partnership could be difficult.

"We'll be pretty sensitive, much more sensitive about conferences that have nine games," Delany said. "They have less flex. We're going to have a discussion about it."

There will be plenty of discussion in Chicago, and several big scheduling decisions will be made "in the very near future," Hollis said.

Although each Big Ten school has different scheduling models and desires, it's important to reach consensus on these items.

"One thing we've always done in the Big Ten that I'm proud of is we've had a collaborative group, and we've always tried to get to the right destination," Phillips said. "I don't recall us having any of those 6-6 votes.

"So wherever we get to, I would hope it'll be a 10-2 or an 11-1 vote."

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 19, 2012
7/19/12
5:00
PM ET
Hey, everybody, it's time for another Big Ten Thursday mailbag. I know that many of you have Penn State fatigue, and understandably so. Still, Penn State questions filled up my mailbag. So I'll answer just a few right off the bat and then -- pinkie swear -- we'll get to other topics. Actual football can't come soon enough.

To the mail we go:

Keith from Tyler, Texas, writes: As a recent finance graduate and life-long fan of Penn State, I have an interesting solution to how PSU should go about imposing its own sanctions that would make it almost impossible for the program to get the death penalty. It's estimated that on the average game day, about $60 million dollars is generated in revenue. Let that happen, and divvy up the money as they would to the programs, students, and athletes like the usually do. However, whatever amount the actual team usually pockets, announce a pledge to donate it all for a year or two to victims of child abuse, including bowl revenue. I would have to guess it would be around $100 million (Estimation) in total. At this point, if the NCAA bans the football team from playing, all that money to help victims goes away too. While this might sound almost like blackmail towards the NCAA, it's a solution that helps victims of child abuse, while not hurting the other athletes/students/programs the team funds, nor does it hurt the town and the innocent people who live there (Which includes the families of the abuse victims).

Brian Bennett: Keith, I think you're on to something, and it's the approach I've been advocating of late. Banning Penn State football would hurt a whole lot of people who had nothing to do with the mess, including the other sports at the school who are largely funded through football proceeds. But whether it's by NCAA decree or the school's own doing, the football program should take a hit in the pocketbook. Remember that the Nittany Lions did donate money from their bowl game to a child victims' group last year and held various fundraisers during the final home game of the season. Make sure the money keeps flowing to the right places to help the victims as much as possible. If that means salary cuts for administrators and coaches or holding off on building a nicer weight room, well, that's the least Penn State could do.


Matt from DeWitt, Mich., writes: Brian, First, congrats on the wedding and nice vacation. You must be ready for football to start now the stress is over. Anyway, with the disclosure that Joe Paterno's family is starting its own "independent" review of the Freeh Report; will it really have an impact? It seems like many will take the Freeh Report as independent and one that truly looked for the facts. It seems like all the family is trying to do is write its own version of history. Will this move potentially harm the legacy of the name Paterno at Penn State even more because it looks more like sour grapes with the very intense investigation, by a former FBI director no less?

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Matt. If you ever get the chance to go to Barcelona, jump at it. I'm recharged and itching for some football games to start. I'm highly skeptical, at best, of the Paterno family's review. You think the family has better resources than a multi-million dollar investigation headed by a former FBI director? And how can it possibly be anything but hopelessly biased? Unless the family is sitting on some documented proof we don't know about -- and remember, Paterno didn't use e-mail -- then I fail to see what could possibly come of this that will be beneficial.


Jason from Jackson, Mich., writes: As a Michigan State fan, I am a little upset about the idea of Penn State taking down the statue of Joe Paterno. I am still upset about the B1G taking Paterno's name off the B1G Championship trophy. To me as a fan of college football, not Penn State, Joe Paterno is a legendary person in the sport, having made numerous contributions to this sport. Not only has he helped put college football on the map, he has also put Penn State on the map. However, to let one bad decision jeopardize the legacy Paterno has left is crazy. If they do take the statue down, I am sure the number of loyal Penn State fans across the nation will keep Paterno's legacy alive. I am sure fans like me across the B1G will join them in that cause.

Brian Bennett: With all due respect, Jason, "one bad decision?" Really? Paterno, according to the Freeh report, participated in an active coverup to harbor a child molester and ignored or possibly impeded accusations in 1998 and 2001. You think all the Sandusky victims view that as "one bad decision?" If Paterno was willing to do that to protect his program, what other things did he sweep under the rug? I could not care less about Paterno's "legacy" or some pointless statue. But to suggest he only made one minor misstep is a gross underestimation of what occurred in this horrible case. The Big Ten should be applauded for taking Paterno's name off the championship trophy when it did, despite the criticism it took from Penn State backers at the time. That was one good decision.


Ben from Ann Arbor writes: Brian, ever since the B10 took Paterno's name of the Championship trophy, the only name on it now is "Stagg". While Alonzo Stagg was a pioneer of college football and clearly one of the game's most important names, his team doesn't even play football anymore, let alone play in the B10. So, in my opinion, the B10 should change the name to people who still represent the conference, like Schembechler-Hayes. Or why does there even need to be names associated with the trophy, why not just call it the Big Ten Championship Trophy?

Brian Bennett: Well, Ben, as you probably know, the Big Ten likes to name everything. We already have the Hayes-Schembechler coach of the year award. I'm fine with just naming the Big Ten championship trophy after Alonzo Stagg, as that gives us the chance to say each team that wins it will be throwing a Stagg party. But here's a novel idea: why not, in a few years perhaps, name it the Delany trophy? Few people have been as influential in the league as Jim Delany, and he was instrumental in the forming of divisions and, of course, the title game itself.


Ben from Connecticut writes: I for one am not sorry to see the BIG/Pac-12 partnership fall apart. Had that agreement been in place years ago, I'd have never seen my Buckeyes play Texas, USC, or Miami, and they likely wouldn't have Oklahoma, Va Tech, and Tennessee in future years. Sure it's nice to have a partner, but a little variety is the spice of life.

Brian Bennett: You make a good point, Ben. While the Pac-12/Big Ten series would have been a whole lot of fun, it would have pretty much guaranteed that teams would not schedule any other high-profile opponents on the nonconference schedule. And after you cycled through USC, Oregon and maybe Stanford or Washington, things would get less interesting. The key will be for Big Ten teams to continue scheduling marquee nonconference games and to get cooperation from marquee opponents to do so.


The Like Ninja from Unknown writes: We know that Ron Zook is a horrible gameday coach, but we also know that he can recruit talent... Tim Beckman can actually coach this talent... I think that OSU will be the best team in the division, but their bowl ban means that the 2nd place team will go to the CCG... IMO the division comes down to the Illinois @ Wisconsin game that will decide which team finishes 2nd... and Wisconsin will lose due to a hangover from losing in Lincoln the week before. So am I crazy, a genius, or a crazy genius?

Brian Bennett: I admire your optimism about the Illini and agree that the opportunity is there. But I see two issues. One, you're discounting Penn State and Purdue, both of whom I think will be strong teams in the Leaders race this season. And two, while Beckman might be a better gameday coach than Zook, he didn't recruit most of his current players. I'm not sure the roster, especially on offense, is especially suited for his schemes this year. I do think Beckman can build a contender in Champaign, but this may be somewhat of a transition year.


John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: It will be very interesting to see how your post-season quarterback rankings compare to your pre-season rankings. I predict there will be some movement, with James Vandenberg probably having the best shot to stay near the top. Do not be surprised if O'Brien and Maxwell end up having the best QB ratings, they are likely to get a ton of help from their run games.

Luke from Marietta, GA., writes: Andrew Maxwell is seriously the 10th best quarterback in the conference? I don't think that any rational football coach (unless the coach ran a spread-option offense) would, in a million years, take Kain Colter, Denard Robinson, Taylor Martinez, Caleb TerBush, or Marquise Gray over Andrew Maxwell. TerBush, Gray, and Colter aren't even good in their systems, and Denard and Martinez are wildly-overrated and overhyped running backs who take snaps.

Brian Bennett: Something you need to keep in mind with these preseason rankings: we are heavily weighing them in favor of previous performance. While I like Maxwell a lot, it's also true that the Michigan State quarterback has never started a college game or ever played in a crucial situation. That lack of experience is why he starts so low on the list, though he could easily climb up as well as O'Brien (whom gets downgraded for his bad 2011 season). That's why we play the games.


Jim from Albuquerque, NM., writes: Why is Nebraska maligned after their first year in the Big Ten? I don't think anyone could really expect a team to come through with a perfect record going straight into a different conference. And I expected them to beat Michigan and Northwestern at least. Two losses would have been better than 4. It's Nebraska. But can you really malign Bo Pelini for his efforts? I would cut him some slack if I were an athletic director.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure who exactly is doing the maligning to which you refer. Around here, we've repeatedly said that Nebraska has been close but hasn't quite gotten over the hump under Pelini. Hard to knock a guy who wins nine games every year, but at the same time Huskers fans want more. Nebraska's big problem in 2011 was consistency. They had some nice wins (Michigan State, Ohio State, at Penn State, Washington) but also got blown out by Wisconsin and Michigan, lost one they shouldn't have at home against Northwestern and committed way too many mistakes in a winnable bowl game against South Carolina. That kind of up-and-down play is not a hallmark of a championship team, and Nebraska will have to be more focused this season. Speaking of ...


Walter White from ABQ writes: Who has a better season 5, Me or Bo Pelini?

Brian Bennett: Since there is no conceivable way that "Breaking Bad" ends without you dying in a "Scarface-"type hail of bullets or going to jail for life, I'm going to have to pick Pelini in a landslide here. And what I wouldn't give for Pelini to clench his jaw and tell his team, "We're done when I say we're done," in the fourth quarter of a game this year.
The book on Ron Zook when he got to Illinois read like this: phenomenal recruiter, average coach.

The description didn't change much when Illinois canned Zook in November following seven seasons. Zook signed several nationally elite recruiting classes, including the 2007 crop (headlined by Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson), and he continued to recruit well until the on-field results took a dive. Illinois' recent NFL draft success -- the Illini have produced five first-round picks since 2008, more than any other Big Ten team during the span -- underscores the fact that Zook and his assistants knew where to find talent.

Tim Beckman arrived in Champaign with a similar recruiting profile to Zook's. He was known for his recruiting efforts at previous stops. Although the class Illinois signed in February didn't earn high marks regionally or nationally, it didn't seem fair to judge Beckman until he had more time to put his stamp on a class.

So far, the new coach is delivering.

Illinois has added four recruits in the past week as defensive end Dawuane Smoot gave his pledge on Tuesday night. The Illini already have 14 players committed for the 2013 class, the third highest total in the Big Ten behind national leader Michigan (22) and Iowa (15), which also has surged in recent days.

According to ESPN Recruiting, the Illini have two four-star recruits -- quarterback Aaron Bailey and cornerback Darius Mosely -- along with 10 three-star prospects.

I reached out to Jared Shanker, ESPN's Midwest Recruiting Coordinator, for some thoughts on the Illini's early recruiting success under Beckman.

"That is a little surprising," Shanker writes in an email. "For some, Illinois was their biggest offer at the time and they jumped on it, but the Illini have beat out some very good programs for a number of their commitments. Aaron Bailey was also high on Nebraska and Wisconsin, and Darius Mosely is a four-star corner who had offers from several BCS programs. The two four-star commits already on board is already half the number Illinois had in the previous three classes when they picked up only four.

"As for the three-star guys, Jarrod Clements was one of the top defensive line performers at the Columbus NFTC; Caleb Day is a versatile athlete the previous Ohio State staff was high on; and Kenton Gibbs was very good this spring competing at a few camps."

Beckman, who came to Illinois from Toledo and grew up in Berea, Ohio, not surprisingly has made his home state an emphasis in recruiting. Six Illini commits hail from Ohio.

"Beckman had a reputation for not being scared to compete with the BCS programs for recruits despite being at a MAC school," Shanker writes. "That mentality is going to serve him well at Illinois as the Illini are often considered a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten. A lot of the credit goes to recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, who really worked the Ohio area hard."

Shanker added that while Illinois' class is shaping up well, the true test will be how well the staff scouted prospects who didn't receive much interest from the rest of the Big Ten. That's where the development component comes in.

"It won't matter who else offered them if they turn out to be as good as the Illini staff believes they are," Shanker writes, "and that is really all that matters."

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 18, 2012
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