Chicago Colleges: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
1:00
PM CT
 
Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Big Ten morning links

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
7:00
AM CT
On a Sunday night conference call with reporters, six days before another measuring-stick game for his team, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio provided a dose of perspective.

"Win or lose, you know, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that that's every bit as important as this one single game," Dantonio said.

He's right. As tempting as it can be to draw conclusions about teams and leagues after Week 1, it's also irresponsible. Seasons have plot twists. What we think is true on Sept. 1 rarely proves true on Jan. 1.

But there's an undeniable angst around the Big Ten entering Week 2. It might have been there even if Wisconsin had held onto a 17-point lead against LSU. But after the Badgers' collapse, which knocks them out of the playoff picture for now, the stakes are even higher.

I still think a narrow Michigan State loss to Oregon keeps the Spartans alive for a playoff spot. But a convincing defeat -- and, in the minds of some, any defeat -- will hurt the Big Ten's chances of having a representative.

League commissioner Jim Delany, in an interview with SI.com, called the MSU-Oregon game "disproportionally important" in terms of playoff perception. That phrase -- disproportionally important -- underscores the unfairness and the reality of Week 2 games like Spartans-Ducks.

It's not really fair to punish Michigan State for a loss -- Oregon is 34-2 at Autzen Stadium since the start of the 2009 season. But the bashing will come, perhaps more for the Big Ten than MSU, if the Spartans fall short.

There's also pressure for both Ohio State and Michigan in Week 2. The Buckeyes should win against a Virginia Tech team that isn't what it used to be, but Bud Foster's defense can be tricky, and Ohio State needs its revamped offensive line to improve after struggling for the first three quarters against Navy.

"Our offensive line did not play like an Ohio State offensive line," coach Urban Meyer said Monday. "The second half we played pretty good. But pretty good is not what we expect. You play pretty good this week you won't win that game."

Speaking of offensive lines, we'll have a better idea about Michigan's after Week 2. The embattled group looked better in the opener (350 rush yards), but Notre Dame, despite some personnel issues on defense, provides a better test.

Although beating Notre Dame hasn't been much of a springboard for Michigan in recent years, a road win would be huge for Brady Hoke's crew. A loss suggests there's still much to fix.

"The talent level [at Notre Dame] is very similar," Hoke said "That, as much as anything else, gives you a little bit of an idea about where we stand."

MSU, OSU and Michigan aren't the only Big Ten teams entering pressure-packed games. Northwestern can't afford to drop to 0-2 -- and lose its sixth straight home game -- against Northern Illinois. Purdue and Iowa face potentially tricky MAC foes in Central Michigan and Ball State.

Patience is a nice idea, but it runs in short supply in college football. Don't kid yourselves: This is a huge week in the Big Ten.

Post-Labor Day linkage:

West Division
East Division
And, finally ...

Michigan State hopes to go all NES on its opponent Saturday ...

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
5:00
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You saw our predictions on the conference standings. And our picks for Big Ten defensive player of the year, offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year.

But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.

We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.

Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
5:00
PM CT
Big Ten football kicks off in 26 hours. Let's get you ready with a mailbag:

Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.

Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.

Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.

Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap. 

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
10:00
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.

Big Ten morning links

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
7:00
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Game week is here. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:

1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.

The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.

2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.

4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.

"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."

East Division
West Division
Notable

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.

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.

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.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseason. Earlier we took a look at the teams in the East Division. Now, here’s what the West Division teams have been up to this summer.

Illinois Fightin Illini raise money with "Lift for Life." Iowa Hawkeyes do the work for a children's hospital. Minnesota Golden Gophers reveal how Mitch Leidner jumps so high. Nebraska Cornhuskers Bo knows tweeting amusement parks on 4th of July. Northwestern Wildcats team build with Navy SEAL-like workout. Purdue Boilermakers Jesse Schmidt's summer internship. Wisconsin Badgers cool down at pool party.  

Tough slates tougher on some B1G teams

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
8:00
AM CT
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.

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