The big topics these days -- player compensation, player safety, cheating, academic/eligibility questions, scheduling ethics, football factories, soaring coaching salaries and saturated media coverage -- seemingly have no connection with the sport in its infancy.
The meticulously researched book describes a wildly popular, often corrupt, extremely dangerous sport filled with power-hungry coaches and larger-than-life stars promoted by media members at every turn. Back then, the University of Chicago was a football factory, and kickers, including Wisconsin's Pat O'Dea, dominated the spotlight. But the same themes that resonated then still hold true today.
"These games were so huge and the sport was so important to schools," Revsine recently told me. "Anyone who follows college football knows it was played in the late 1800s, but I always had this notion that it was a bunch of well-mannered Ivy Leaguers taking a break from their Shakespeare recitations to kick the ball for two hours in front of 200 people. It just couldn’t be further from the truth. I open the book with the 1893 game between Yale and Princeton, and there's 50,000 people in New York City and the New York Sun has 17 reporters at the game.
"That was such an eye-opener."
It's a great read, especially for Big Ten fans, as Revsine, the Big Ten Network's lead host, describes the league's early stages and stars like O'Dea.
What is O'Dea's legacy and place in college football history?
"I just thought he was a fascinating story and how he really helped raise the profile, not just of the University of Wisconsin, but all of the schools in the Midwest. That game in 1899, where they go out and play Yale, that was a huge, huge deal. He was such a curiosity. And the legend may have been a little larger than the reality at times, and at other times it was not. His significance is partly raising the profile of football in the Midwest. There's a great quote in there, when Michigan went out to play Harvard in the 1890s, [the Wolverines] were referred to as, 'Crude blacksmiths, miners and backwoodsmen.'
"You think of what people thought of our area of the country, and, in a larger sense, this whole sense of superstardom and our need for superstars was really fascinating. And then his story, the mystery that surrounded him. Was O'Dea the most significant college football player in that time period? Probably not. But everything that happened, all these big-picture things in the sport, happened to him in some way. He was a great way to make it a narrative."
What was the Big Ten's role in the sport?
The biggest thing I learned is how invested [the University of Chicago] was in football. I always had this notion that at a certain point, Chicago just decided that the sport was beneath them and going in a direction they weren't comfortable with. If it was going in that direction, it was going there because of the world they, more than any school in the Midwest, had helped create. And just the idea that the Big Ten's founding principles were about eligibility and academics. They were wrestling with this idea of who can play and who can't play. It was a bunch of like-minded schools trying to figure out, 'How can we put structure to this?' Now, as we see in the book, they put structure to it and then instantly ignored it. When it wasn’t convenient, they went in the other direction."
You have 60 pages of citations at the end of the book. What was the research process like?
"It took me four years. I read a lot of articles, I was in a lot of archives, I wanted to make sure that everything I put in there, I attributed. It was arduous. There were definitely times when I said, 'What in the world am I doing? What did I do this to myself? I have a job. I have a family.' But there's just a passion to it. I got so fired up by it."
What lessons does that time period in the sport provide?
"It's fascinating, just the discussion about likenesses this summer with the Ed O'Bannon case. The book mentions Willie Heston, who played for Michigan, and they sold Willie Heston cigars on campus in Ann Arbor. Part of the lesson is there's nothing new. We live in this time period where we say these are unique challenges for the sport and the sport is in an unprecedented place. The scope has definitely changed, it's a much bigger enterprise, but the sport has been grappling with these issues for a long time, almost from the outset."
And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.
"That football side now matters."
Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.
"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."
Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.
"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"
Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.
"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."
The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.
"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."
Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.
So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?
"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
CHICAGO -- Unlike some of his counterparts from other leagues -- and unlike some of his own previous years here -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't seem interested in making major headlines during his address to close out media day.
Then again, Delany's views on NCAA reform and other pressing topics are well-known and well-documented. He spoke at length on the subject last year at this time in Chicago, and all 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors signed a letter endorsing student-athlete welfare upgrades just last month.
So Delany didn't need to bang the gavel this year. Instead, his comments were more subdued. But the commish's words always carry weight, so here's a recap of his 25-minute address at the Chicago Hilton:
- Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby ripped NCAA enforcement at his league's media days last week, calling the system "broken" and saying "cheating pays" these days. Delany said he wouldn't echo Bowlsby's "more colorful" language, instead simply terming the enforcement branch as "overmatched." Delany did say the power conferences need to come together to bring about a new way of policing themselves. "We need a system that works," Delany said. "I think there's no doubt that NCAA enforcement has struggled. ... My hope is over the next year to 18 months that major conferences can come together and can find ways and processes and procedures that fit with what we’re trying to achieve, which is a level of deterrence, a level of compliance and a level of punishment.”
- Along those lines, the NCAA Division I board is scheduled to vote Aug. 7 on new autonomy measures that will give the Power Five conferences the right to craft many of their own rules. Delany said he's confident that autonomy will pass and would be "very surprised" if it doesn't. But he didn't issue any threats about power leagues forming their own division, as SEC commissioner Mike Slive did earlier this month. “If it doesn’t [pass], I don’t really know what we’d do,” Delany said. “I expect there would probably be conversations within each conference, we’d huddle up, and then see where we're at.”[+] EnlargeJerry Lai.USA TODAY SportsBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany characterized the NCAA's enforcement branch as "overmatched."
- Delany reiterated that the Big Ten scheduling model going forward will include nine conference games, one nonconference game against a power league opponent, and no games against FCS teams. Delany acknowledged that some high-level FCS teams are more competitive than low-level FBS squads and that it often costs less to schedule games against the FCS. But Delany said he's worried less about the budget and more about making sure his conference has the strength-of-schedule ratings needed to catch the eye of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
- Delany testified in the Ed O'Bannon trial and saw one of his own league teams -- Northwestern -- vote on forming a union. So he's well-versed on all the various fronts challenging to tear down the NCAA model. The commissioner said he's not sure where this is headed, but he and the Big Ten remain committed to making sure education plays a pivotal role in college sports. “I certainly hope when the dust settles there will be a wide array of education and athletics opportunities for many men and women,” he said. “I hope at the end of the day the courts will support us in achieving them. College sports is a great American tradition. It’s not a perfect enterprise. No perfect enterprise exists. We can improve it, and we should.”
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
- Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
- Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
- The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
- Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
- Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
- James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
- The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
- Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
- Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
- The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.
Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.
Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.
Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.
Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.
So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.
There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.
Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?
In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.
For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.
Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:
Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.
It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.
Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.
But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.
Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.
Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.
Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.
Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.
We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseason. Earlier we took a look at the teams in the East Division. Now, here’s what the West Division teams have been up to this summer.
Illinois Fightin Illini raise money with "Lift for Life." Iowa Hawkeyes do the work for a children's hospital. Minnesota Golden Gophers reveal how Mitch Leidner jumps so high. Nebraska Cornhuskers Bo knows tweeting amusement parks on 4th of July.
Northwestern Wildcats team build with Navy SEAL-like workout. Purdue Boilermakers Jesse Schmidt's summer internship. Wisconsin Badgers cool down at pool party.
Top Thrill Dragster at the one an only Cedar Point! pic.twitter.com/Vs2jeUhkNz— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) July 4, 2014
Northwestern is next on the proverbial dais, as coach Pat Fitzgerald will be joined by quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Collin Ellis.
1. How much is the unionizing debate impacting Northwestern's season preparations?
The last we saw Wildcats players, they were casting a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to rule on the university's appeal of the regional office's decision that would permit a union. If the NLRB rejects the appeal, the votes would be unsealed. The timing for the NLRB's ruling is unknown, and even if the appeal is shot down, the players are expected to vote down the union. But the debate was a major distraction during spring practice and could surface again during a critical preseason, where Northwestern must come together. Expect Fitzgerald and the players to downplay the union talk, although it will be interesting to see what Campbell, a close friend of union catalyst Kain Colter, has to say.
2. How will the offensive approach change with Siemian at the controls?
The big plus coming out of the spring was Siemian establishing himself as the top quarterback and clear-cut team leader. He shared quarterbacking duties with Colter the past two seasons, which worked at times but also muddled Northwestern's offensive identity. Siemian's strength as a passer, combined with a more experienced offensive line, suggests Northwestern will return to the pass-first approach it used from 2007-2010. The Wildcats return their three pass-catchers from 2013 -- Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale -- and should be strong on the perimeter if they choose to feature the air game. But they also are extremely deep at running back as Venric Mark, a 2012 All-Big Ten selection, returns from injury. Northwestern undoubtedly will pass more with Siemian, but it can't neglect Mark, its most explosive player.
3. What are the biggest priorities entering preseason camp?
Fitzgerald admitted late in the spring that Northwestern is behind schedule after missing a bowl game and the practices that go along with them. The Wildcats also had 11 players miss the spring with injuries, including projected starters like Mark and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, and potential starters like defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Cornerback Daniel Jones, an opening day starter in 2012, also should be back from a knee injury. The defensive line will be a focal point as McEvilly, Odenigbo and Gibson return to the rotation. Northwestern also must figure out its running back rotation, how promising young defensive backs like Godwin Igwebuike will be used and who emerges in the kicking game, as All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs.
That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?
The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.
"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."
It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.
They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.
"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."
For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.
"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."
Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.
While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996 and 2000.
"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.
"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."
There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.
Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.
"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."
The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?
While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.
But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.
"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."
It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.
"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."
Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, writes: In an imaginary world, let's say every major conference produces one undefeated team (ex: Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State, Baylor) Who doesn't make the Playoff?
Brian Bennett: Chaos in Year 1! Bill Hancock might have a nervous breakdown, and the selection committee members might have to go into hiding. First, let's acknowledge that the odds of all five power conference champions going undefeated is exceptionally low. We had only one such league champ last year (Florida State), and upgraded nonconference scheduling will make it even tougher in the future.
But it is possible that the stars could align for Patrick's scenario. And that's where strength of schedule and perceived conference power will come into effect. With the teams you mentioned, I would say it's highly likely that Baylor would be left out, since the Bears' nonconference schedule includes the murderers' row of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. There's just no way the committee could reward that kind of scheduling unless the Big 12 proved historically good.
The more plausible controversy for the Playoff, of course, is a logjam of one-loss conference teams. Which is why the Big Ten needs to make sure it is winning key nonconference games and improving its overall perception.
Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Steve. While it's fun to look at, say, Michigan vs. Oklahoma in 2025-26, there's no guarantee that it will ever happen. We could all be slaving away for our alien ant overlords by then. With series like those set so far in the future, there's a great chance that schools will have new athletic directors and -- almost certainly -- new head coaches by then. And the people (or cyborgs) in those chairs may have different priorities on scheduling, may be looking to rebuild, etc.
Many power conference school with serious Playoff aspirations are trying to upgrade their schedules and play more power-five teams. But if some of those series get cancelled at the last minute -- like, say, Vanderbilt pulling out against Ohio State -- then teams could find themselves really scrambling to arrange suitable opponents and would risk missing the Playoff because of it. That's why I think you'll see schools try to make these contracts more iron-clad moving forward.
@ESPN_BigTen How much difference can Chris Ash make in his 1st yr with the Buckeye defense? How long before he is a head coach?— GMarshall (@GeoffreyMarshal) July 17, 2014
Brian Bennett: It was interesting to say the least when Ash left Arkansas -- where he was the sole defensive coordinator -- to become co-defensive coordinator for Ohio State without any sort of pay raise. When I asked him about it this spring, Ash said part of the reason for the move was that he wanted to be a head coach someday, and he wanted to learn from as many different coaches as possible. Working for Urban Meyer is always a smart résumé-builder, as he has planted a pretty impressive coaching tree.
I like what Ash did at Wisconsin, and I think his more aggressive scheme will benefit the Buckeyes this season. And even though Ohio State lost Bradley Roby, I expect the secondary to be much better this year. That's because I think the young talent at safety will be a big upgrade over what the Buckeyes used at that position after Christian Bryant's injury last season. There could be some growing pains early, but I'm impressed by the athleticism available. If Ohio State makes a leap in its pass defense, Ash could find himself on the fast track toward being a head coach.
Brian Bennett: I watched Minnesota last year and didn't think the Gophers were "lucky." That was a physical team that played strong defense and ran the ball well. There was nothing fluky about their wins over Nebraska and Penn State, and both Wisconsin and Michigan State struggled to score much against Minnesota late in the year (albeit in arctic conditions for both games). I can see why computer models might like Indiana a little more, given that the Hoosiers can throw up crazy offensive statistics, and the Gophers have a difficult schedule. But Indiana doesn't have an easy time either this year with trips to Missouri and Bowling Green before heading into the rugged East Division.
As far as Wilson goes, at most places missing a bowl for four years would be cause for dismissal. But remember that the Hoosiers have only been to one bowl game since 1993, so the standard is a little different. He has recruited well and built up the talent level, and IU is still a pretty young team because of all the true freshmen Wilson has thrown out there. Athletic director Fred Glass will want to see continued improvement and competitiveness, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But as long as the Hoosiers are showing that progress, I think Wilson will be safe for a fifth year, even with another postseason absence this year.
Big Ten media days are still two weeks away in Chicago, but we're here to get you ready. This series lists three of the pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, and the possible answers.
Illinois is first up in the proverbial hot seat. In addition to coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are bringing offensive tackle Simon Cvijanovic, tight end Jon Davis and defensive tackle Austin Teitsma.
1. What's the plan/timetable for the quarterback competition?
The starting job technically remains open as Wes Lunt, Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey will continue to compete in camp. Beckman said in April that he wants the probable starter to start receiving more reps when the team begins two-a-day practices. Lunt seemed to have the edge for much of the spring and boasts the strongest arm, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit seems to be high on his development. O'Toole's experience keeps him in the mix. Bailey is a tremendous athlete but must show improvement as a passer to remain in the race. Expect to see some separation by about Aug. 10.
2. Who must step up on defense for the unit to improve?
It starts with the front seven as Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in rush yards allowed (238.6 yards per game). The Illini lose top linebacker Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, who played the Leo position, transferred to Louisiana Tech. Beckman praised the play of T.J. Neal coming out of the spring, and he forms a potentially strong tandem with Mason Monheim. The line is a mix of veterans who need to blossom such as Teitsma and Kenny Nelson, and newcomers like Jihad Ward, Paul James and Joe Fotu, who must make an immediate impact.
3. What will it take for Beckman to leave the hot seat and return for a fourth season?
This isn't a new question -- it has been asked throughout the offseason -- but it will undoubtedly come up during media days as Beckman will be a popular choice as the Big Ten coach on the hottest seat. Illinois AD Mike Thomas has said the Illini need to win more going forward, but has wisely avoided specific numbers for this season. The big debate seems to be whether Beckman could survive at 5-7 -- a third consecutive bowl-less season -- or if Illinois needs to reach the six-win plateau and qualify for postseason play. Beckman and the players likely won't speculate on what it will take to prevent a coaching change, although they'll address a schedule featuring several tough road games (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska).
- Additional filings are due today in the Northwestern labor dispute.
- Braxton Miller is not yet 100 percent, but Urban Meyer says he's close.
- Wisconsin's Chris Borland is ready to prove NFL naysayers wrong.
- An All-American wrestler at Maryland will try his hand at playing defensive line for the Terrapins this fall.
- Illinois is paying out some big money to future opponents.
- Iowa fans shouldn't fret over recruiting losses, Pat Harty writes. The Hawkeyes top the Big Ten Network's ranking of the league's offensive lines.
- A late addition to the Gophers' 2014 recruiting class won't be coming to Minnesota after all. Jerry Kill made this list of underrated coaches.
- Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann is trying to win over Tim Pernetti loyalists.
- Ranking the five most important Penn State players for 2014.
- Former Michigan running back Thomas Rawls has transferred to Central Michigan.
To the links:
- Count Wisconsin's Gary Andersen among the coaches who want to work at satellite summer camps for recruiting purposes.
- Leadership consultant Tim Kight has been a big part of Urban Meyer's program at Ohio State.
- A closer look at Penn State's offensive line, a unit that is filled with question marks this summer.
- Bo Pelini was all smiles during the Nebraska whistle-stop tour.
- Several incoming Michigan State freshmen talk to Joe Rexrode about their expectations for the season.
- Maryland will enter a whole new world on Tuesday when it officially joins the Big Ten.
- How the Big Ten is piecing together the 14-team scheduling puzzle.
- Illinois' director of football operations Tim Knox wears many hats in his job.
- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood is confident despite his uncertain future.
- Brady Hoke says Michigan has finally built enough roster depth to have true competition.