Chicago Colleges: Big Ten Conference

Jim Delany stays the course on media day

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:40
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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.”
  • [+] EnlargeJim Delany
    Jerry Lai.USA TODAY SportsBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany characterized the NCAA's enforcement branch as "overmatched."
    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.”
  • 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.”

B1G media days: Best of Day 1

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:00
PM CT
CHICAGO -- The season has unofficially started in the Big Ten.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ten storylines for Big Ten media days

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
10:00
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You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:00
PM CT
Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

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.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM CT
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:

 

Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.

It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.


Alex from New Orleans writes: Brian, I know there's been a lot of talk about Michigan's struggles from last year, and how they might continue to struggle again this year. Rightfully so. But rather than talk about the team's floor and how far it will sink, as so many people want to do, what do you think Michigan's ceiling is as a team this year? Let's just say everything comes together from the O-Line to the Pass Rush. They've got two very good coordinators, and a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A lot of young talent, yes, but talent nonetheless. Jabrill Peppers, though a freshman, may not be of this world. I know this team won't go undefeated, but at the same time, I don't think there's one game on the team's schedule that it can't win. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.

But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: Should the Illini erect a Dick Butkus statue on the opposite side of Memorial Stadium from the iconic Red Grange statue? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.


David L. from Chicago writes: Last week, Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, asked who wouldn't make the Playoff in an imaginary world where every major conference produced one undefeated team, using Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor as examples. Great question, but I want to add a wrinkle to it: What if Ohio State, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor go undefeated and Alabama has one loss. Who are the four playoff teams then? (remember the media loves the SEC).

Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.

Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.


Chris from Castle Rock, Colo., writes: Why do you suppose Iowa running backs (namely Mark Weisman) were left off the Doak Walker Award watch list? Is this a way of tricking the AIRBHG for another season?

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.

Tough slates tougher on some B1G teams

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
8:00
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The move toward stronger nonconference schedules by the Big Ten and other leagues is already yielding benefits for fans. As teams gear up to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, several high-profile intersectional future matchups have emerged, the latest of them including Michigan-Oklahoma in 2025-26 and USC-Alabama in 2016.

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."

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
5:00
PM CT
As you've probably noticed, we've switched the days up a bit with the mailbag as we've gone daily here in the last stretch of the offseason. Keep sending us your questions, especially on Twitter.

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.


Steve from Boston writes: Brian, I can think of some great home-and-home B1G matchups that have happened (Michigan-Oregon, though the Big House episode was not so pretty), Ohio State-Texas, and several that are scheduled. But it seems like an awful lot of these scheduled several years into the future seem to be cancelled. Alabama and Michigan State cancelled their home-and-home, and others both in the B1G and elsewhere [have fallen through]. Not to mention we were told about the B1G/Pac-12 partnership that never happened. You bring up the fact that you never know who will be good 5-10 years into the future, further making it hard to get excited about these agreements until they actually happen. Let's hope they all do.

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.


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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.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Indiana vs Minnesota. Head coaches came on board at the same time, so it seems like it's a good time to evaluate the programs. ESPN's computers have predicted the Hoosiers to be 7-5 (4-4 in the conference) this year and the Gophers to be 5-7 (3-5 in the conference). Prior to this year, the Gophers (under Jerry Kill) in the conference are 8-16 with two bowl losses, Hoosiers (under Kevin Wilson) are 5-19 and no bowl appearances. 1) Based on ESPN's computer analysis, it seems that the Gophers were lucky last year. 2) If Wilson doesn't get to a bowl game this year, how would you (acting AD) decide whether he deserves to come back or not?

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's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
11:00
AM CT
Pre-fireworks links:

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
12:00
PM CT
Today marks the birthdays of Mike Tyson and Lizzy Caplan, the anniversary of the merging of East And West Germany's economies and, of course, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day. Oh, and I got married two years ago today. Probably should have mentioned that first.

To the links:
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:00
PM CT
Tackling the second of three mailblogs this week. Have questions? Send them here or tweet me here.

What's on your mind?

@mikemagnus via Twitter: Would there be as much pushback adding Maryland and Rutgers if they were added at the same time as Nebraska rather than separately?

Adam Rittenberg: Really interesting question, Mike. As Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often says, not every expansion addition can be Nebraska or Penn State. There is filler out there (hello, Utah, Colorado and TCU) and schools brought in more for their locations than their athletic tradition. I think if this happened in 2010, the reaction could have been different. Nebraska would be celebrated and Rutgers and Maryland would be seen as a way to get closer to the superconference model.

Some of the criticism would remain, and some would wonder why the Big Ten didn't add other Big 12 schools. Remember, the eastern movement wasn't a B1G objective at the time, and the ACC hadn't added Syracuse and Pittsburgh. But overall, I don't think the backlash would be as strong because Nebraska would be a nice distraction.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey Adam, one thing really stood out about the B1G Presidents & Chancellors' letter: they endorsed most of Kain Colter and CAPA's stated goals. As you say, none of the ideas are new, but is it safe to call this a (provisional) vindication for Colter? And what should we make of the fact that they didn't endorse a formal seat at the decision-making table for athletes?

Rittenberg: Brian, it's definitely a victory of sorts for Colter and CAPA. They would like to see more specifics and protections in the medical plans schools will offer athletes (current and former), but it's significant that the medical coverage piece is part of the signed letter. CAPA has been smart in not advocating first for a pay-for-play model, as few can argue with a push for greater medical coverage for athletes. Good point about the omission of an athlete seat at the decision-making table, although Delany and other league leaders have voiced their support for one.


Isaiah from the South Carolina cornfields writes: Adam, I believe that the best approach for scheduling nonconference opponents is a balanced one. Games against only FBS teams is a great start, but let's be honest, Eastern Michigan is probably a worse team than North Dakota State. Really, what is important is the quality of the opponent. Teams that finish within 25 places from where your team does should be the norm; this could include playoff FCS teams as well. One opponent should be a marquee team as well. Some opponents will dud out, sure, but it's better than beating up on Sun Belt and MAC teams.

Rittenberg: Isaiah, glad to hear from some cornfields outside Big Ten country. I like your plan for teams to play more comparable opponents as much as possible, but there are some potential problems. Since scheduling is done so far in advance, an opponent that looks comparable at the time the series is scheduled might have declined by the time the games are played. Ohio State found this with its recent Cal series, as Cal went from a Top 25 program between 2004-08 to a very bad one the last two seasons. I could live with FCS playoff teams, as many are better than the bottom of the FBS and they would help Big Ten teams meet their home-game demands.


@lukebilotta via Twitter: Who is the player nobody is talking about but is poised for a breakout season?

Rittenberg: Luke, since you're an Indiana fan, I know you talk about Tevin Coleman quite a bit, but he's not a known name around the Big Ten. That should change this season if Coleman stays healthy. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon might be the top big-play back in the country, but Coleman isn't far behind. He averaged 7.3 yards per rush and 141.7 all-purpose yards in nine games last year. Perhaps that qualifies as a breakout season, but Coleman should be an even bigger part of IU's offense as a junior, and he runs behind arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line, another group no one talks about (check the blog on Thursday for more).

On defense, keep an eye on two linemen: Penn State's C.J. Olaniyan and Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo. Olaniyan quietly had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and he should be even better this year. Odenigbo is a speed rusher who, in limited work, had 5.5 sacks last season. When he figures it out, he'll be a force off of the edge.


Mark from Snyderville writes: I think having a solid slate of semi-cupcakes is respectable but lacking. The MUCH tougher noncon slate in my opinion is one that can make or break your season and league perception in one game. For instance, Wisky plays LSU. That is HUGE for the B1G. Win and the perception of Wisky and the B1G changes overnight. Maybe the perception changes just for the rest of the season, but it gives you a big boost for the upcoming playoffs. Kansas State plays Auburn at home on a Thursday night. You think that game means more to the conference than, say, Texas vs. BYU? Of course it does. Give me one big, huge, giant, winner-takes-all game over 3-4 mediocre scraps any day.

Rittenberg: I tend to agree, Mark. Ohio State took this approach for years and had blockbuster, conference-perception-shaping games against teams like USC and Texas. While I would like to see one other quality opponent on the schedule, the strength of a schedule with Oregon or LSU on it trumps one with good or average teams and no cupcakes. Also, I've noticed teams that step out and truly play a marquee opponent often avoid criticism for the rest of their nonleague schedule.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
11:00
AM CT

It's OK, these links don't bite.

Gauging B1G nonleague slates not easy

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
4:00
PM CT
This is not a ranking of the Big Ten's nonconference schedules. Repeat: This is NOT a ranking.

But certain national rankings like this are out, and it got me thinking how tough it will be to accurately evaluate the Big Ten's nonleague slates for 2014. It comes down to this: What should get more weight, a schedule with no cupcakes but no headliner or one with a truly marquee opponent and the rest snoozers?

My friend Bruce Feldman rates the nonleague schedules based on a system that awards points for the quality of nonleague opponents. Two Big Ten teams make his national top 10, and both fall under the limited cupcakes/no headliner label. Ohio State and Northwestern are tied for seventh with a total of three points. The Buckeyes face Virginia Tech (home), Cincinnati (home), Navy (neutral) and Kent State (home) this season, while Northwestern takes on Notre Dame (road), Northern Illinois (home), Cal (home) and Western Illinois (home).

Both schedules are certainly respectable, but is either a true challenge? A lot depends on whether Virginia Tech restores its place among the ACC's elite and Notre Dame surges following the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Cincinnati and Navy should be solid foes, and Northern Illinois has won 12, 12 and 11 games the past three seasons. But the Huskies are beginning life without star quarterback Jordan Lynch, as well as safety Jimmie Ward, a first-round draft pick. Cal won't go 1-11 again, but the Bears have a lot of problems and must play Northwestern on the road.

Clemson, tied with both Ohio State and Northwestern for seventh place, faces both Georgia and South Carolina in nonleague play. That seems like a much tougher schedule, even though the Tigers face Georgia State and South Carolina State in their other two contests.

There's no team on Ohio State's or Northwestern's nonleague slate that rivals Oregon, which Michigan State visits in Week 2. The LSU team that Wisconsin opens the season against in Houston also is projected higher than anyone either Ohio State or Northwestern faces. Those two games -- Michigan State-Oregon and Wisconsin-LSU -- have more bearing on Big Ten perception and potential playoff positioning than any others.

The problem is Michigan State's remaining nonleague schedule: Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. I just threw up in my mouth.

Wisconsin's remaining slate isn't much better: Western Illinois, Bowling Green and South Florida. I like Bowling Green's trajectory and its new coach, Dino Babers. It could be a tricky game, but Wisconsin will be heavily favored in all three contests.

So which type of slate is tougher: one with a single significant challenge or one with only one true breather? Better yet, which would you like to see in the future as nonconference scheduling gets even trickier?

Send me your thoughts.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
5:00
PM CT
Brian's off this week, so I'm attempting three mailbags (today, Wednesday and Friday).

Wish me luck. Better yet, send me questions. And follow us on Twitter.


Aaron from Minneapolis writes: Jerry Kill and his staff have frequently said over the last few years that they want to recruit bigger, taller offensive weapons, and they seem to be following through on that. The past couple recruiting classes have included all of one receiver under 6-foot-2, a handful of 6-3 and 6-4" wideouts, and a huge 6-9" tight end. I know big wide receivers are sort of in style around the country, but Kill seems to be taking it to the extreme. Is this something other Big Ten teams are doing, or is Minnesota's big receiver strategy a bit of an outlier?

Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, the proliferation of spread offenses and their reliance on slot receivers has lowered the demand for the traditionally bigger wideout. It doesn't mean teams don't want those players, especially if they can run. Minnesota's offense has some spread elements, but it's more of a traditional set, based around the power run. The Gophers' last elite receiver, Eric Decker, was a taller guy with excellent hands and athleticism. It certainly helps to have size out wide, and Florida State showed last season how beneficial it can be with players like Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5). But teams generally are looking for speed first and aren't locked in to having every receiver stand taller than 6-foot-2.


Angie from Chesapeake, Virginia writes: Will Green or Smith consider transferring due to the USC running back coming on board at Michigan?

Rittenberg: Too soon to tell, Angie. The big question is: When will Ty Isaac be eligible? He wants to play immediately but might have to sit out a season. If he sits, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith will enter the season most likely as Michigan's top two ball-carrying options. So they can distinguish themselves without any push from Isaac. Ultimately, most teams want to play at least two running backs and sometimes three. While running back transfers aren't uncommon, you don't see them as much as quarterbacks.


Jordan from Katy, Texas, writes: About Indiana, it has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, but obviously no one outside of the state is going to notice when its defense is so horrid. How are things going under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr? Are there signs that the defense IS improving, or is that something we just cannot know until the Hoosiers hit the field in August? Frankly, I think they need to be bowl eligible THIS year or Kevin Wilson's stock will plummet.
Rittenberg: Jordan, I'm interested to see how Knorr will fare in Bloomington. He plans to run a 3-4, which is becoming more popular in the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Maryland also use it). Indiana has upgraded its recruiting efforts on defense and needs some of those players to blossom this fall, especially in the front seven. I'm especially interested in defensive tackles Darius Latham and Ralph Green. Ultimately, this unit needs to provide concrete evidence this fall after a quarter-century of futility, but as I've always said, Indiana doesn't need a great defense to make a bowl. An adequate one will do. The offense can take care of the rest.


@BraydenHodges via Twitter: What do you think of the early point spread of the MSU-Oregon game? I understand the Spartans being an underdog but 13 points?

Rittenberg: It seems a little high, although Oregon performs extremely well at home and is capable of putting up a big number on just about anybody. Big Ten teams typically struggle in games at Pac-12 stadiums, and Autzen Stadium is one of the nation's toughest environments for a road team. But I think the oddsmakers are underestimating Michigan State's offense, which returns quarterback Connor Cook and most of its key pieces from a 13-1 team. The Spartans clearly need a big effort from their defense against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, but Cook and his crew should be able to put up points in this game, if they avoid turnovers. Oregon definitely is the favorite, but 13 points is a lot.


Doug G. from San Antonio writes: Adam-I truly believe Joel Stave should get the nod at QB for UW. I know the accuracy needs to improve, but he certainly has proved he can play well, and I believe that three of the losses last year had nothing to do with him. Penn St. was a defensive debacle (for some reason), and Stave had us looking good against South Carolina before he was injured. I know the WR spot is a question mark, and Coach A likes to have a QB who can run, but I hope we see Stave under center against LSU to open the season. I would not mind a few "packages" per game for Tanner M., but I also thought he was progressing as a safety. What are your thoughts on this?

Rittenberg: You bring up some valid points, Doug, and it's good to see that there are some Stave supporters out there. His experience can't be overlooked, especially given how his primary competitor, Tanner McEvoy, lacks any experience at the quarterback position at the FBS level. I just wonder how much Stave can improve after losing his top wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and with so much uncertainty on the perimeter. McEvoy provides the mobility to get out of trouble and create plays when none appear to be there. But it might not be wise to throw him into the fire against LSU's defense in Week 1. That's a tough spot. Ultimately, we need to see Stave back to 100 percent this summer and how he performs in camp when the freshmen wide receivers are there.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
11:00
AM CT
Back from vacation. Nice to link up again.

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