Chicago Colleges: Big Ten Conference

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM CT
There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0

Illini name Wes Lunt starting QB

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
3:00
PM CT
In what has to be one of the least surprising resolutions ever to a quarterback competition, Illinois has named Wes Lunt as its starter for the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State next Saturday.

Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.



Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.

Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.

So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
5:00
PM CT
Very soon, college football will occupy your weekends. Until then, here's an extra-large mailbag to help you make it through. Continue to submit questions for our team of reporters.

Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.

Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.

Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.

Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles. 

Big Ten morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
AM CT
The hyperbole hits a high point in February on signing day.

For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.

But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.

At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.



At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.

The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.

Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.

But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.

East Division
  • Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
  • What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
  • The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
  • A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
  • Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
  • Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
  • Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
West Division
  • There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
  • Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
  • Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
  • Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
  • An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
  • Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
And finally ...
  • Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.

Big Ten morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
8:00
AM CT
Let’s talk about your new favorite subject and mine: autonomy.

What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.

Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.

We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.

From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.

Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.

Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.

“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”

Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.

How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.

And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?

Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.

So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.

Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.

Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
Overtime
Last link . . .

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
9:00
AM CT
 

Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Best case/Worst case: Northwestern

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
8:30
AM CT
Football practice is in full swing, and we're just three weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way, shape or form. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Up next: Northwestern.

Best case

The choice in wording allowed for an easy joke, but it was Pat Fitzgerald who was the one smiling and laughing as the regular season came to a close.

Northwestern had proven without a doubt that it was one of the most unified -- not unionized -- teams in the country, turning a bond fortified through all the attention inside and outside of the program into a motivator that pushed it all the way to a division title.

Claiming that West crown wasn’t easy, of course, as seasons rarely are for the Wildcats. They started showing their upside early by cruising through three nonconference games at home, surviving Venric Mark's suspension with ease. But they hadn’t made many true believers until going on the road and showing off what the revamped, versatile offense could really do with Trevor Siemian at quarterback as the Wildcats overpowered Penn State to serve notice to the Big Ten.

That momentum continued into October as Northwestern answered a question about its defense, unleashing a unit that clearly enjoyed playing at full strength as it slowed down Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon enough in a 31-20 win to take over the inside track in the West.

There was a hiccup at Iowa that tightened up the race, and a rare November game outside the league didn’t go Northwestern’s way either as it came up short against resurgent Notre Dame on the road. But the Wildcats bounced back quickly and trounced Purdue and Illinois to clinch the division and cap their turnaround with a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Michigan State’s vaunted defense may have held Northwestern in check and kept the Wildcats from adding the most coveted trophy in the league, but Fitzgerald was smiling again before the season was finally over after a Capital One bowl victory for a team that was once again famous just for what it did on the field.

Worst case

The issue was supposed to all be in the past, but there simply was no escape for Northwestern. And while they might not have ended up unionized when the final ruling came out, the entire team clearly wasn’t on the same page off the field -- and it showed up on it.

With a handful of players vocally expressing opinions that didn’t match up with the final verdict, dissension within the ranks took its toll on a distracted roster that entered the season expecting to contend in the West Division but instead found itself reeling and out of the race by the middle of October.

After opening the season with three comfortable wins against overmatched opponents, the lack of focus was plain to see in a disastrous road trip to Penn State that included too many penalties, a handful of turnovers and a defense that didn’t put up much of a fight in the front seven.

The issues on defense continued all month long against teams that had no problem running the football even against stout units, let alone one looking so similar to the Northwestern team that finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense a year ago. The Wildcats are relentlessly mocked with strike signs, and the defense often looks like it would prefer to stand in a picket line than take on the league's best tailbacks.

Wisconsin and Melvin Gordon racked up yardage at will in a decisive victory in Evanston. David Cobb did the same as Minnesota won at home, and Ameer Abdullah put the nail in Northwestern’s coffin in the West Division as Nebraska cancelled all the parties on homecoming.

There would be a couple bright spots with Fitzgerald rallying the troops for a November surge, knocking off Michigan to keep bowl eligibility within reach. And the Wildcats would get there despite falling at Notre Dame, edging Purdue and Illinois to cap a trying regular season on a high note.

But the union questions and the distractions kept popping up throughout preparations for the Detroit Lions Bowl, sending the Wildcats into the offseason with one more loss and without any satisfying answers.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
4:00
PM CT
It's almost the weekend, and only three more of these without football. Use it wisely.

Don't forget that I'm hanging out in a new space on Twitter, and you can follow me here.

Now, I'm 'bout to 'bag it up:

Chasmo from Greenwich Village writes: I know you were anti-union last spring when Northwestern's players were about to vote but after writing your story about how the Big Ten football coaches want autonomy for their sport and a commissioner who will pay attention to just football all year long, can you still support coaches like Pat Fitzgerald when they make argument that Big Ten players are really students and not employees? And did you notice that, aside from agreeing to pay the players a small stipend, there wasn't a lot in your story about the need to make the lives of players better, but instead the need to make the "product" better?

Brian Bennett: I've long been an advocate of more benefits and more power for players. I just didn't think a union was necessarily the right way to go about it, or that Northwestern was exactly a great test case for abuse. What I like about autonomy is that it should clear the way quickly for Power 5 schools to offer full cost-of-attendance stipends, medical benefits and four-year scholarship guarantee. Indiana recently came out with its athlete bill of rights that, among other things, will let any former player who left in good standing resume their education for free. These aren't small benefits, especially when you consider the skyrocketing costs of higher education and health care. Current players will also have 15 seats on the 80-member voting panel for the Power 5 leagues under autonomy. At least they will have a say now.

I also love the idea by West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck that players can be compensated for their image and likenesses. Why not? Olympic athletes can get paid for endorsements, and that didn't ruin the Olympics. It would only really apply to the star athletes, as the third-string offensive guard probably isn't getting paid to do a commercial. But if he's getting free tuition, a stipend and medical care, he's still doing pretty well.

Autonomy isn't a cure-all, for sure, and it would be nice if these things had occurred without all the threats of lawsuits and unions forcing the sport's hand. But at least there is undeniable progress, at long last.

 
Brian Bennett: In case you missed it, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently said that playing East Carolina "is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams." The Pirates are a good team, so no arguments there. But why did Spurrier pick on the Big Ten when he had plenty of examples in his own conference?

Kentucky and Arkansas both went 0-8 in the league last year. I can speak with some authority on the Wildcats and don't think they would have beaten any Big Ten team except for Purdue. Arkansas lost to Rutgers (for the second straight year). Tennessee and Florida were no great shakes, either; the Gators lost at home to Georgia Southern, and the Vols -- well, our new editor is a Tennessee fan, so I'd better shut up now.

That's the most bothersome thing, to me, about the wild, over-the-top love that is showered on the SEC. The teams at the top of that league have been great, no doubt, and much better than the cream of the crop in the Big Ten in recent years. But the teams at the bottom of the SEC somehow get credit for just breathing the same air, when they're no better than any other mediocre-to-bad FBS clubs. Bob Stoops was right.


Joshua from Minnesota writes: Who has a better chance of playing spoiler among the top favorites for the West Division title between Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin this fall: Minnesota or Northwestern?

Brian Bennett: I love this question so much that I want to take it on a moonlit walk. I view the West Division much like a horse race. (I am from Kentucky, after all.) Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin are the three favorites with the best pedigrees. Northwestern and Minnesota are the live long shots. Illinois and Purdue are just hoping to hit the board (and may need a pileup to do so).

Let's not forget that the Gophers were 8-2 at one point last year with wins over Penn State and Nebraska. Wisconsin and Michigan State had to slog their way to victories over Minnesota in the final two weeks. This is going to be a physical team with a strong defense, and if the passing game improves to where it's an actual threat, Jerry Kill's team will be a factor.

Meanwhile, Northwestern won 10 games just two years ago and, despite every bad break in the world last year, was just a few bounces away from winning eight or even nine games (the "one play away" game is a treacherous path to tread, but the Wildcats were ludicrously unlucky in 2013). Last season's collapse obscures the fact that the trend line is going up in Evanston, and Fitzgerald has recruited good athletes the past few years who could start to help that defense.

So, yeah, both are spoilers in the West. Who has a better chance of emerging as a true contender? I'd say Northwestern. While the Wildcats' schedule is not easy, Minnesota ends the season like this: Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin. That's brutal, and when you throw in a crossover game at the Big House, the Gophers have a massive hill to climb.


Charlie from Dakota Dunes, S.D., writes: Ohio State has finished the regular season undefeated that past two seasons. The Buckeyes have a realistic chance to do it again this season making it three in a row. Has any other team done that in the last 30 or 40 years? Maybe Boise State or Nebraska in the 90s? What are the chances they do start the season 12-0 again?

Brian Bennett: Nebraska went undefeated in the regular season from 1993-95, with its only loss during that time coming to Florida State in the Orange Bowl in the 1993 season. Which was followed by two straight national championships. Boise State came close, going undefeated in the regular season in 2006, 2008 and 2009. So, yes, it's extremely difficult and rare. Ohio State has a chance to do it again this year, if its young talent develops as hoped. The Buckeyes' toughest road tests will be at Michigan State and Penn State. It's hard to envision them losing any games at The 'Shoe.

The big question, of course, is whether Ohio State can win a Big Ten title and a major bowl game this year. Without those accomplishments, the three straight regular seasons will be more of a footnote than anything else.

 
Brian Bennett: Man, can we see at least one 2014 game first? I'm continually amazed how sports fans are constantly obsessed with what's next instead of what's right in front of them. But I'd better hurry up and answer this question so I can get back to studying St. Louis Cardinals prospect scouting reports.

A million things can change over the next 12 months, but one of the big questions to me will be who plays quarterback at Ohio State. The Buckeyes could be the favorite again given all their young talent, but is either Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett a championship quarterback? That's a major issue. Assuming Connor Cook comes back for his senior year, Michigan State should be in great shape. Wisconsin will have another advantageous league schedule and should bring a lot of pieces back. And that's about as clear as my crystal ball gets right now.

Schedule analysis: Illinois

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
1:00
PM CT
Just a few more weeks before the games kick off. Until then, we're looking forward and analyzing every Big Ten team's 2014 schedule.

Up next: Illinois

Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Youngstown State (8-4)
Sept. 6: Western Kentucky (8-4)
Sept. 13: at Washington (9-4)
Sept. 20: Texas State (6-6)

West Division games

Sept. 27: at Nebraska
Oct. 4: Purdue
Oct. 11: at Wisconsin
Oct. 25: Minnesota
Nov. 15: Iowa
Nov. 29: at Northwestern

Crossover games

Nov. 1: at Ohio State
Nov. 22: Penn State

No-plays

Indiana
Maryland
Michigan
Michigan State
Rutgers

Gut-check game: In the last two years against Wisconsin, Illinois has given up 87 points and lost by a combined 41 points. An Illini defense that was one of the worst in the country against the run last season goes up against Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and that massive Badgers O-line. On the road. Yeah, that's gut-check time.

Trap game: While Illinois can't afford complacency in any of its games, the Purdue game at home on Oct. 4 sticks out like a trap. It's sandwiched between difficult road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin. And remember that the Illini only won by four points in West Lafayette last year, the Boilers' closest shave in a winless Big Ten season. This is not a game Tim Beckman's club can overlook.

Snoozer: Take your pick between the three nonconference opponents not named Washington. None of the three figure to be hideously uncompetitive, but they also don't offer many interesting storylines, either.

Nonconference challenge: It's hard to fault the Illinois nonconference schedule too much because of that trip to Washington. The Huskies outclassed Beckman's team last year in a 34-24 win at Soldier Field, and now they get the Illini on their turf. UDub could have the element of surprise on its side as well with new coach Chris Petersen in charge.

Analysis: It might just be bowl or bust this year for Beckman, who is 6-18 in two years in Champaign with one Big Ten victory. If so, his fate will boil down to league play. The Illini should go 3-1 in the nonconference slate unless disaster strikes. Can they triple their Big Ten win total from the past two years combined in order to reach the postseason? That won't be easy, with a crossover game at Ohio State and road trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Illinois likely will have to get those three wins against the group that includes Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa at Memorial Stadium and rival Northwestern on the road. It's certainly doable -- the Illini very nearly beat the Nittany Lions and Wildcats last year, after all -- especially if the defense makes significant improvement. But the margin for error is undoubtedly slim.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
5:00
PM CT
I'm pumped up to return to the mailbag rotation after a busy week at Big Ten media days and the Big Ten coaches car wash at ESPN last week. Remember that you can always ask questions on Twitter, and we've all got our own individual accounts now. Follow me @BennettESPN. I'll also be doing a mailbag Friday.

Now, on to your questions ...


Tom from Omaha writes: Looking at the West Division this year, I feel like Nebraska is the most talented and proven (Wisconsin lost a lot). However, I also think that it's very likely that the best of the West (NU in my opinion) may not win the West because of its tough schedule. What do you think?

 Bennett: Tom, I think you hit the nail on the head. As I evaluate the individual teams, I like Nebraska's overall roster the best. The Huskers have far fewer question marks than Wisconsin and better overall athleticism, in my opinion, than Iowa. (Though that didn't help Nebraska much last year in Lincoln vs. the Hawkeyes. Bo Pelini's team was pretty beat up by then and there was a lot of negativity around the program, but Iowa still took it to them on the road).

There's no question Nebraska has a tougher schedule than either Iowa or Wisconsin. The Huskers have to go to both Madison and Iowa City, and they drew Michigan State on the road as a crossover while neither the Hawkeyes nor the Badgers have to play any of the top East contenders. Schedules definitely matter. I think the Spartans would have won the Big Ten regardless last fall, but their crossover games -- Indiana, Illinois and Purdue, with no Wisconsin or Ohio State -- certainly didn't hurt. A true championship team can overcome schedule hurdles, however. We'll have to see if Nebraska is good enough to do so.


Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Florida, writes: It seems like the new CFB Playoff dilemma will be which Power 5 conference gets left out (according to most media outlets anyway). Well, I decided to take a look at the final standings of all the Power 5 conferences for the past three years, and it looks like it would have been a very easy decision in my opinion. 2011: sorry, ACC. 2012: sorry, B1G. And, finally, 2013: sorry Big 12. It's similar to "What will we do when there are more than two undefeated teams and the BCS computers break?" Well, we know that was rarely the issue ... everything tends to work itself out. Do you really think this will be an issue?

Bennett: If it was as simple as determining which conference should be left out, that would be one thing -- and there's no doubt the Big Ten wouldn't have stood a chance in 2012. The selection committee will also have to decide if there are two worthy teams from one conference (hello there, SEC fans). Conference strength shouldn't matter as much as how good an individual team is and who it played during the nonconference schedule. For example, let's say the Big Ten is down as a whole this year, but Michigan State or Wisconsin plows through the league undefeated. If they also won their marquee nonconference games (Oregon and LSU, respectively) and those opponents went on to have the kind of seasons we expect, then a weak Big Ten wouldn't hold them down.

I agree that it's going to be very rare, if not outright impossible, to have more than four undefeated teams. The real wrangling will be over similar 1-loss teams who played very different schedules. College football has always had a numbers problem, as the Big Ten and Big 12 membership illustrates. Now it has five power conferences for four playoff spots. And so it goes.

 Bennett: You can never predict with precision which true freshmen will perform at a high level right away. Players develop at different rates, learn the finer points of the game at different speeds, suffer from home sickness, etc. That said, I tend to lean toward freshmen who A) enrolled early to get a head start on the process and B) play a position where it's easier to have an immediate impact. Based on what I saw in the spring, my pick on offense for the Indiana offense is wide receiver Dominique Booth. He's got a good build at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he was a well-regarded recruit, and he plays a position of need for the Hoosiers after the loss of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. I'd be surprised if he didn't get some early playing time.

IU didn't have any early enrollees on defense, but I think Kevin Wilson could call on some young guys in the secondary. So I'll go with safety Will Dawkins. Wilson has never been shy about throwing true freshmen into the fire, though the hope is that his staff has built enough depth now that they won't be relied upon as much in 2014.


 Dave from Ann Arbor, Michigan writes: Hey, Brian, I'm curious about what you recently described as a "quirk of the new division setup" -- Michigan's return to East Lansing for a second year in a row. It means that, with the Notre Dame series ending, from now on Michigan will have no rivalry home games every other year. With plunging student-ticket sales and permanently less appealing schedules because of Maryland and Rutgers, this seems like a fairly serious issue. Sure, the "on" years with Michigan State and Ohio State in Ann Arbor will be great, but consistency seems more important. I doubt Dave Brandon likes the situation, but why wasn't he able to stop it?

Bennett: Schools didn't have a whole lot of say in the formation of the schedule once they all agreed on some general principles. And, naturally, Michigan didn't want the Notre Dame series to end how it did. You're right that some home schedules may suffer a little bit. However, in 2016, when the Michigan State and Ohio State games are away, Wisconsin and Penn State come to the Big House. In 2018, Nebraska joins those two teams as visitors to Ann Arbor. They may not be historic rivals, but those should still be attractive games. And the loss of the Notre Dame series allows Michigan to schedule some very good nonconference home-and-homes, which will mean visits in the future from Arkansas ('18), Virginia Tech ('20), UCLA ('22) and Oklahoma ('26) in those even-numbered years.


Jules M. from Chicago writes: Hi, BB, I have a few questions for you, please, pick any or all to answer: Since there is no chance of going to a bowl game anytime soon, is there any hope ILLINOIS could lure Jim Tressel from Akron to get back into coaching? Who do you think would be a strong candidate to rebuild ILLINOIS Football after the disastrous Tim Beckman era hopefully ends in 2014? Do you think it's possible that AD Mike Thomas fires Beckman midway through the season and allows Bill Cubit to be the interim head coach to finish out the 2014 season?

Bennett: Wow. I thought the preseason was supposed to be a time for optimism. I don't ever like to speculate on successors until a coaching change is clearly coming, and I don't root for any coach to lose his job. I will say that there's a good chance that the Illini are 4-2 after their first six games if they beat the teams they will be favored against. If so, that means Illinois would be in bowl contention for the entire month of November. I don't expect any kind of midseason firing in Champaign unless things go horribly awry.
What do you really know about the origins of college football? If you're like me, you think of Ivy League types meeting on fields before small crowds. It was a simpler game -- no forward pass until 1906 -- played at a simpler time.

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.

[+] EnlargeYale-Princeton 1893
Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library With 50,000 fans watching, Princeton's Phil King places the ball at midfield to begin the 1893 game against Yale. King went on to become the head coach at Wisconsin, where he coached Pat O'Dea.
But there are links between college football's distant past and present -- lots of links. Dave Revsine's terrific new book, "The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation," details how college football between 1890-1915 isn't all that different from the current sport.

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."

B1G coaches see playoff as equalizer

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
2:30
PM CT
CHICAGO -- The preseason primping in college football is over. The beauty contest has been canceled. If the playoff selection committee does its job, nothing that is said, written or ranked between now and early October will matter.

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.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking forward to the new College Football Playoff.
Although some question whether any poll should have bearing on the national title race, at least these rankings will be shaped by what happens on the field in the current season. While the playoff technically broadens the national championship field from two to four teams, in reality, the doors are open to dozens of others.

"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."

Jim Delany stays the course on media day

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:40
PM CT
video
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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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
AM CT
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TOP 25 SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Friday, 8/29
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31