Big Ten: Tim Banks
@BennettESPN B1G lost lots of defensive star power (dennard, shazier, borland, hageman, bullough). What 4-5 guys step up to fill conf. void?— Keith Glaser (@keithcg) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: The strength on defense throughout the league right now is on the defensive line and at end in particular with Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Andre Monroe, etc... The Big Ten definitely took a big hit at linebacker, with guys like Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Iowa's senior trio all moving on after last season. I'm looking forward to seeing who steps up at that position and expect some new stars to emerge at places like Michigan State (Ed Davis, maybe Riley Bullough), Ohio State (Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan), Iowa (Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry) and Wisconsin (Vince Biegel).
@BennettESPN is alleged choice of McEvoy as WIS QB have to do with the potential weakness at WR? No one open, make plays with feet?— Steve Moon (@moonraker717) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: I don't think it has too do much with the questions at receiver. Head coach Gary Andersen has made no secret of his preference for mobile quarterbacks, something we talked about before he ever coached a game at Wisconsin. I believe Andersen really wanted Tanner McEvoy to win the job because he has a far superior ability to make plays with his feet than incumbent starter Joel Stave. I just wonder if giving McEvoy his first FBS exposure as a quarterback against LSU is the best move, but there is also a good chance Andersen will play both guys on Saturday, anyway.
Brian Bennett: Michigan would likely have to climb over 7-to-10 teams to get into either major Top 25, so the Wolverines would need to win in impressive blowout fashion and benefit from some upsets. But this question is a good way to remind us all that we shouldn't really worry, or even pay much attention to, the polls. They mean nothing now, other than a possible subconscious influence on the College Football Playoff committee members. All that matters is what the selection committee thinks, and their first set of weekly rankings won't come out until late October. I still think the idea of a weekly Top 25 from a committee primarily charged with picking the four best teams is silly and unnecessary. But if you're going to fret over any set of rankings, make it those.
Sam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes: What has to happen for Illinois to be the darkhorse team in the West Division? Do you see any possible way it could happen?
Brian Bennett: It's probably a stretch to think Illinois can actually contend for a division title, even in the wide open, wild wild West. But stranger things have happened, and I do think the Illini can make a bowl game this season if things break right. Of course, it's all about that defense and whether coordinator Tim Banks can get the group to stop the run. The addition of some junior college players like Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu should help, and that side of the ball is more mature now. I expect the offense to remain very good, especially with strong-armed Wes Lunt at quarterback. This is a team that scored 32 points on Wisconsin and 35 against Ohio State last season, so even a return to mediocrity on defense could make Illinois a tough out.
KyleS from Columbia, South Carolina, writes: I'm surprised you picked Rutgers only winning 4 games for this upcoming season. I know you were a blogger that followed Rutgers when they played in the Big East. Luckily for me when Rutgers wins 6+ games, I will be able to send you another email to say... I told you so.
Brian Bennett: Now is the time for confidence and optimism. I'm not sure how having covered Rutgers previously is supposed to influence my prediction for this season, but if the Scarlet Knights do somehow manage to win six or more games against that schedule, by all means write me back and crow about it. Just know that I now have your e-mail address, too.
Rich from Omaha, Nebraska, writes: Brian: Nebraska will be 2014's Auburn. Their O-line is much better than people realize. They have the best backfield in the Big Ten, especially now, unfortunately. Their defensive line and linebackers will be the best rated units by the end of the season statistically. And they won't turn it over 5 times when the beat an overrated Michigan State in East Lansing. No one outside of Nebraska sees it coming. Last year, I thought they might win 9. This year, they can win them all. Save this post and you'll realize in November, this is was not some homer drinking the Kool-Aid.
Brian Bennett: Yes, people are feeling great about their teams. I'm looking forward to all the caterwauling from all 14 fan bases Saturday afternoon after their team's first failed third down. It's almost here. Enjoy all the ups and downs.
When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
Admission: Tickets and parking are free. Only the East side of the stadium is open, and fans should enter through Gates 17, 19 and 21.
TV: Streamed on BTN2Go.com
Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, temperatures in the 60s, winds at 10-15 mph
What to watch for: The Orange and Blue game will be played with a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock for the fourth, aside from the final two minutes if the game is close. Every drive following a score will begin at the offense's 27-yard line. Punts will be fair-caught, and field goals will be attempted without a rush. The seniors selected the rosters earlier this week, as quarterback Wes Lunt was the first pick (Blue), followed by running back Josh Ferguson (Orange). Seven players are listed on both rosters and could play for both squads.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is in no rush to name a starting quarterback, but Lunt has looked the part this spring, especially in last week's scrimmage. Coach Tim Beckman described the spring game as another opportunity to compete, although Lunt and Reilly O'Toole both will play for the Blue squad, while dual-threat sophomore Aaron Bailey suits up for the Orange. Newcomer receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek, both of whom have stood out this spring, will play for the Orange team. Top running backs Ferguson and Donovonn Young also will play for Orange.
On defense, keep an eye on linebacker T.J. Neal, whom Beckman singled out for his play this spring. He brings versatility to the group. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks called Neal "the surprise of the spring." Leo DeJazz Woods and end Kenny Nelson are worth watching after making plays in earlier spring scrimmages.
The quarterback position always generates attention, but Illinois' biggest problems in 2013 were on the defensive side of the ball. The unit is better, coaches say, and fans can get a glimpse of the differences Saturday.
The ultimate goal for the 2014 Illini, however, is pretty clear. Entering Beckman's third season, the program needs to show more improvement and get to a bowl game after going 2-10 and 4-8 the past two seasons.
Beckman understands that and all but promised more.
"We've got to be better," he said Monday. "We've got to win more football games. We all understand that. There's no question about that. So we're going to win more football games."
Beckman said he is not under any sort of mandate from athletic director Mike Thomas to make a bowl this season, but a disgruntled fan base may not show much more patience. Illinois had gone to back-to-back bowl games before Beckman arrived in Champaign.
“We’ve got to showcase that we’re getting better,” Beckman said. “That would be five, six [wins].
"Heck, my wife locks the door in December because she wants to be at a bowl game. ... I push myself to get our football team to a bowl game because I enjoy going to bowl games. Has anybody told me or pressured me by saying you’ve got to get to a bowl game? No. I’m my worst critic, so pushing myself to get to a bowl game is definitely something I want to do.”
The Illini have seven home games in 2014 and should go at least 3-1 in the nonconference schedule, as Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State all come to Memorial Stadium. They will be a considerable underdog in a Week 3 trip to Washington, however, and the Big Ten schedule includes crossover games against East Division opponents Ohio State and Penn State.
Illinois must break in a new quarterback this season, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is a talented option and the favorite to win the job. Beckman said Monday that he'd probably name a starter by the end of spring practice.
Beckman brought back his entire coaching staff from 2013, including embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks. This spring is a crucial time for the defense to make as many strides forward as the offense did a season ago. And the entire team will need to make notable progress this fall or else the prospects of a Year 4 under Beckman become much dimmer.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Let's get started ...
1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.
2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.
3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.
4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.
5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.
6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.
7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.
8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?
9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.
10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.
11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.
12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.
Here you go, Illini:
There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.
The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.
Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.
Special teams: C
The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.
Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.
More report cards
That includes offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who received a contract extension through the 2015 season and a substantial raise on Wednesday. Keeping Cubit was a no-brainer, as the Illini offense was one of the most improved units in the entire Big Ten during his first season at the helm. Illinois averaged 29.7 points per game and finished fifth in the Big Ten in total offense.
As the former head coach at Western Michigan, Cubit also gives Beckman an experienced assistant to lean on, even if they don't exactly see eye-to-eye all the time.
"He brings so much to our program, not just in X's and O's or touchdowns," Beckman told ESPN.com. "He brings that atmosphere of competitiveness and winning. He's a great person. That's what excites me, coming into the office. ... With his maturity and what he's done as a head football coach, it's a win-win situation for me."
Defense was an entirely different issue for the Illini, who regressed in that area during a 4-8 season. Illinois allowed 35.4 points per game, finished 11th in the Big Ten in total defense and 116th nationally in rushing defense. Many fans called for changes in the defensive staff as a result, but Beckman plans to stick with his guys. That includes coordinator Tim Banks.
"I have the utmost confidence in Timmy," Beckman said. "He had a tough road last year, no question. We did not play very well on defense. But I think, when you look out there and you see that there's a bunch of new faces that are starting for you ... the youth of this team, I've never been around anything like that. Our sophomores or freshmen are backed up by freshmen.
"You look at some of these teams that are successful. You look at Michigan State, and how many seniors they have that have been involved in their defensive scheme. Heck, they're pretty good because they've been around a lot."
Beckman said staff continuity is a big key to success. He's counting on that as one way the Illini can improve their win total again next season and possibly get back to a bowl.
More from Beckman to come in a Q&A on Thursday morning on the blog.
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To the inbox ...
Matthew from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam, I can't help but feeling you've been dodging my question about "national brand teams" in Michigan/Penn State. What qualitative or quantitative data do you have to substantiate these claims? You recently wrote "...what they're used to seeing, and that's Michigan/Penn State [being good]..." really? When was the last time either of these teams were even remotely decent?
Adam Rittenberg: Matthew, I'm not sure how old you are. If you're under 30, the Michigan and PSU brands might not resonate for you as much as Wisconsin's, MSU's and Iowa's. But it's different for those who remember Michigan's national title in 1997 and five Big Ten championships between 1997-2004, not to mention the program's long-term history. The same holds true for those who remember Penn State's national titles in the 1980s or the great teams in 1994, 2005 and 2008.
You want data that validates Michigan and Penn State as big brands? Look at the money they bring in. They're always included in Forbes' list of most valuable college football teams. They have huge stadiums, massive alumni/fan bases and plenty of NFL alumni. I'm not arguing that Michigan and, to a lesser extent because of the circumstances, Penn State are underachieving. I'm actually underscoring that in Michigan's case. But they're still national brands because of what they've done over time.
Ron from Minneapolis writes: Hi, Adam. I think the Gophers got the shaft this year for their bowl game. Gophers fans don't travel well because they end up in bad bowl games. I would bet anything that had they been selected to the Gator Bowl, the fan base would be very good. What I worry about is, even if they would go 9-3 or 10-2 next year, they will still get passed over to a good bowl because of fan travel? It's hard to recruit and become a contender when people don't even watch a lower bowl game like this. As fans, how do we get the word out to the bowl committees so this doesn't keep happening?
Adam Rittenberg: Ron, the good news for you and your fellow Gophers fans is that the Big Ten, beginning in 2014, will take over the bowl selection process rather than put it solely in the hands of bowl officials. Bowls and teams will be assigned to tiers, and the league will work to avoid repeat destinations or repeat opponents for teams. "We're going to really want to have different teams in different bowls," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in announcing the new bowl lineup in June. "... You'll see a real focus on getting diversity and freshness."
All that said, it's important for Minnesota fans to show up at this year's Texas Bowl, support a good team and begin to change the perception about how well they travel. Quite frankly, you're overestimating the gap between the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl and the Texas Bowl. The Gator Bowl has some more tradition, but I'd argue the Texas Bowl is in better location with a better time slot, away from the New Year's Day gridlock. Bowl committees don't care about head-to-head results or fans whining about being passed over. You probably won't have this problem in the future, but you still should go and support your team if possible.
Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: How did Ohio State end up playing Clemson and Alabama playing Oklahoma? Given how close both came to the title game, wouldn't that be a better match-up than either got this year? It would prove how the (true) best SEC team this year compares to the best available B1G team and whether OSU had any business thinking of playing for the crystal football. Also, what do you think of the apparent decision by Tim Beckman to keep DC Tim Banks despite two years of dismal defense by my beloved Illini?
Adam Rittenberg: Todd, it has more to do with the current relationships between BCS bowls and certain leagues. The ACC's tie to the Discover Orange Bowl led the bowl to replace Florida State with Clemson. The same held true with the SEC and the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which replaced Auburn with Alabama. Ohio State-Alabama would have been great, though I was hoping the Sugar would pick Oregon to face Bama, a matchup we've wanted for years. But because of the game's upcoming Big 12 tie-in (Champions Bowl), it went with Oklahoma, and Alabama-Oklahoma looks like a mismatch.
As for Illinois, I'm a little surprised Beckman will keep his entire defensive staff intact. He's entering a make-or-break season, and he wants to sink or swim with the coaches he hired. He probably doesn't want another year of significant staff turnover. But the defense must get a lot better.
Tony from Austin, Texas, writes: Hey Adam, what are the chances of Taylor Martinez playing in the NFL? Is it likely he has a future as an NFL quarterback or is he best changing positions (see Denard Robinson)?
Adam Rittenberg: Tony, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told me before the season that he thinks Martinez can play quarterback in the NFL. Pelini knows the NFL, but I'd be surprised if Martinez is taking snaps in the pros next year. His mechanics are improved from his sophomore year but remain far from textbook, which is the standard in the NFL. I don't see enough arm strength, either. Martinez certainly has skills that translate to the next level, namely his speed, so I see him moving to another position.
Todd from Louisville writes: Adam, your comments in two different posts appear to be almost directly opposed to me. Should Iowa fans demand and expect more than an 8-4 record or be realistic/objective about being ambitious and excited for the future? Do you intend to appear combative with these fans no matter what position they espouse?
Adam Rittenberg: Todd, I think my Iowa comment was misinterpreted, and that's my fault. Iowa fans obviously should be excited about their team's four-win improvement this season. My comment was that in general, an 8-4 record seems to please more fan bases in the Big Ten then it would in the SEC. I don't think enough Big Ten fan bases demand excellence from their programs. That's not a shot at Iowa fans, who were understandably disappointed in 2012. But now the bar must be raised for 2014. Iowa has a real chance to win the West division, and anything less should be considered a disappointment. Kirk Ferentz makes big money and should be held to a higher standard than 8-4. That's more than fair.
There are many reasons why the Big Ten has slipped a bit nationally in football. But I wonder if enough teams in this league take a championship-or-bust approach to seasons, and whether that's contributing to the mediocrity.
Sam from Detroit writes: Adam, if things go how they usually go with Nick Saban and he decides to leave for Texas, do you think Mark Dantonio would be a candidate for the Alabama job? He has to be one of the more desirable coaches out there right now, and Alabama is obviously one of the better jobs. I seem to remember Dantonio being in the middle of the pack as far as compensation for B1G coaches and while I'm sure he'll get a bump this year, it won't be an SEC-esque bump. Do you think he'd leave for a job like Alabama?
Adam Rittenberg: I don't think so, but Michigan State needs to step up and provide Dantonio and his assistants substantial raises. Dantonio knows he's in a great situation at MSU. He has a great boss in Mark Hollis, and his family is happy there. His only tie to the SEC is the fact he played at South Carolina. Dantonio definitely has some leverage if other schools begin courting him, but I'd be a bit surprised if he leaves. He's not a guy completely driven by money, and he knows he can compete for the College Football Playoff at MSU.
Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).
On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).
Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:
Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)
Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.
Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.
One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.
In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.
Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)
Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:
Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan State: $2,410,483
We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.
Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.
Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.
Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.
- Graham Couch looks at Michigan State's 12 steps to Pasadena.
- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is exploring his NFL possibilities and appears conflicted about his future.
- There are similarities between the first three years for Jerry Kill and Glenn Mason at Minnesota.
- Purdue got its third commitment for 2014 in the past four days.
- Silver Football finalist Carlos Hyde was a changed man after his suspension this year for Ohio State.
- A junior college defensive lineman switched from Wisconsin to Nebraska.
- Bryce Miller ponders whether Iowa has the best linebackers group in the country.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is getting some rest for his turf toe injury.
- Illinois coach Tim Beckman plans to retain defensive coordinator Tim Banks despite some shoddy play on that side of the ball.
- Did Penn State meet expectations by going 7-5 in Bill O'Brien's second season?
- Athlon offers its Big Ten awards and all-conference team.
- Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was a little defensive about his unit, but everybody involved knows the effort will have to be better in the Big Ten title game.
- The other defensive coordinator in the championship matchup, Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi, is trying to come up with answers for Ohio State's prolific scoring machine.
- The combination of two teams unbeaten in the conference finally gives the Big Ten a big showcase in its marquee game, writes Tom Dienhart.
- Change is coming for Penn State, which appears to be shaking up its coaching staff and will be in the market for two new assistants this offseason.
- Devin Gardner was clearly struggling at the end of his gritty performance on Saturday against Ohio State, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke revealed the injury was "turf toe."
- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was publicly reprimanded and fined $10,000 for his comments about the officiating after the loss on Friday against Iowa.
- Purdue isn't going to deviate from its plan to rebuild the program, though it clearly isn't happy with an 11-loss season.
- Illinois confirmed that Tim Beckman will return for another season on the sidelines. He'll have a decision to make about defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
- The final home game of the year brought a season-high for Wisconsin, as a fan checked in with a blood-alcohol content sample of .322 and six people were taken to a detox facility.
- An in-depth look at a meeting and the circumstances that led to Kirk Ferentz taking over at Iowa and Bob Stoops heading to Oklahoma.
Next up in our series: Illinois.
Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)
Aug. 31: Southern Illinois (6-5)
Sept. 7: Cincinnati (10-3)
Sept. 14: Washington* (7-6)
Sept. 28: Miami (Ohio) (4-8)
* -- at Soldier Field in Chicago
Leaders Division games
Oct. 19: Wisconsin
Nov. 2: at Penn State
Nov. 9: at Indiana
Nov. 16: Ohio State
Nov. 23: at Purdue
Oct. 5: at Nebraska
Oct. 26: Michigan State
Nov. 30: Northwestern
Gut-check game: The Illini don't get to ease into Big Ten play by any means. They open conference action at Nebraska, visiting Lincoln for the first time since 1985. Tim Banks' defense will be put on the spot against one of the nation's top offenses, and a team that carries a 14-game Big Ten losing streak into 2013 will have to dig deep to stay competitive.
Trap game: When you're coming off a 2-10 season, nothing can really be classified as a trap game. The closest thing to it on this schedule appears to be the game against Miami (Ohio). It arrives after two tough nonconference games and a bye week, and it comes the week before the Illini start conference play.
Snoozer: At least the Southern Illinois is an in-state game, and it is the opener. But it won't tell us much about whether the Illini have truly improved over last year.
Noncon challenge: Both the Cincinnati and Washington games represent tough challenges for the Illini, but the latter may prove more important. Many are pegging the Huskies to be one of the most improved teams in the Pac-12, and Illinois really wants to turn in a solid performance while hopefully gaining some exposure in Chicago. Laying an egg there would only contribute to pessimism around the program.
Telltale stretch: Tim Beckman's team opens Big Ten play like this: at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Michigan State and at Penn State. Yikes. If Illinois plays like it did in 2012, all four of those games could get ugly.
Analysis: A team that desperately needs to build some confidence and momentum doesn't get too many breaks in this schedule. If the offense, defense and special teams haven't made major steps forward, a 2-6 start -- at best -- is a real possibility. Illinois really needs to win one of those two tough nonconference games, and snapping that Big Ten losing streak is a must. But even the Indiana and Purdue games are on the road, and Northwestern looks to have zoomed way ahead in the Land of Lincoln rivalry. Wins could be hard to come by for the second straight year.
More schedule analysis:
Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota
Leaders: Purdue | Penn State
Still, last season is one Brown would mostly like to put in the trash folder.
"Last year was just a rough year all around," he told ESPN.com. "It was just one of those years, man."
The good news is that Brown feels healthy now after rehabbing the shoulder all offseason.
"The whole rehab process was excellent," he said. "We didn't rush back into anything, and took our time. I feel like I've come back even a little bit stronger."
Brown has been participating in voluntary team workouts and testing his shoulder by hitting sleds in individual work. He says he will be fully cleared for all drills when preseason practice starts next month. When asked if he was anxious to hit somebody again, Brown replied, "Beyond anxious. Beyond."
A healthy Brown could do wonders for the Illini defense, which finished 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed (32.1 ppg) last season. This is a guy who had 108 tackles, six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and an interception as a sophomore in 2011. He was still learning the game then, and after a spring in which he spent extra time in the film room -- perhaps the lone benefit from his injury -- he feels older and wiser now.
"I'm expecting to do big things this year," he said. "I feel like I'm at a different level than I was last year and the year before because of my experience. That has put me in a position where I'm ready to excel from where I am now to another level."
But Brown said whatever numbers he puts up won't matter much if the team stinks again during his senior season. The linebacker spot is at least one reason for Illini optimism.
Injuries there allowed Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina to pile up a lot of playing as true freshmen. Those two are now a year older and will be joined by junior college transfer Eric Finney, who is expected to start at the Star linebacker position. Other young players like Houston Bates give defensive coordinator Tim Banks some good depth to work with.
Brown likes what he has seen out of that group and the defense as a whole so far.
"We've really come together," he said. "We're probably not as talented as we were last year, because last year we had a lot of good players. But it just didn't mesh quite right. This year, we've got a lot of guys who are hungry, a lot of guys willing to work. It's going to be exciting."
Brown says he needs to continue working on his lateral quickness, retraining his muscles after so long away from competitive football. But he's not going to hold anything back during fall camp or during his final season in Champaign. He hopes to make 2013 a much more memorable one.
But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.
"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."
The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).
The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.
The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.
Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.
Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).
The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
- Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
- All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
- Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
- Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
- The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
- Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
- Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.
The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
The team on Tuesday announced the hiring of Al Seamonson as outside linebackers coach. Seamonson technically replaces cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale, who recently left for a position with the University of Cincinnati. Beckman has shuffled the responsibilities of his defensive staff. Coordinator Tim Banks now will coach the secondary, while Seamonson and Mike Ward will share the linebacker group. Ward coached the linebackers by himself in 2012 but now will handle inside linebackers, while Seamonson will coach the "LEO" and "Star" positions on the edges.
Another new assistant, Greg Colby, will handle the defensive line.
Seamonson most recently coached linebackers at Central Florida in 2011. He spent a decade (2001-10) as a Maryland assistant, coaching linebackers and special teams. A former wide receiver at Wisconsin, Seamonson coached with Beckman, Banks and Ward at Bowling Green in 2000 and also has had stints at The Citadel and Army.
Beckman has replaced five assistants on his staff from 2012, four of whom left voluntarily for other positions. The new staff definitely has a veteran flair after Beckman hired several extremely young assistants the first time around.
Seamonson's ties to Maryland should help in recruiting, as the Maryland/Washington D.C. area becomes more important to all Big Ten teams because of the upcoming expansion.
Illinois opens spring practice March 5.