Chicago Colleges: Northwestern Wildcats
8:30 a.m. ET
Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.
Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.
Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.
Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.
Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network: Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.
Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.
James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.
Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.
Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.
No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.
It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.
Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.
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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
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
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
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."
- Expectations have tumbled for Ohio State since Braxton Miller's injury.
- An unproven set of receivers is ready to step up for Rutgers.
- Indiana enters a crossroads season.
- Lawrence Thomas, a former can't-miss recruit, is still looking for his breakthrough at Michigan State. Ten predictions for the Spartans in 2014.
- Devin Gardner has matured and looks ready to lead Michigan this fall. Season predictions for the Wolverines.
- Some key questions for Penn State as the season approaches.
- A pair of Maryland regulars face assault charges.
- Ameer Abdullah is beyond ready for his final go-round with Nebraska. The 2014 season could be different for the Cornhuskers, but Tom Shatel says he'll believe it when he sees it.
- Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love has come on strong after an honest talk with head coach Gary Andersen this offseason. Year 2 of the Andersen era should look a lot different than last season, Tom Oates writes.
- Trevor Siemian has stepped forward as Northwestern's leader.
- Can the Iowa passing game make significant progress?
- A look back at Minnesota's upset of Nebraska last year and how it can help the Gophers going forward.
- Tim Beckman's seat is undeniably warm entering the 2014 season.
- Purdue looks for a fresh start.
And here they are:
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.
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.
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
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
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.
@mitchsherman I can't decide which is more asinine, winning 8 as a best case, or only winning 3 as a worst case. Awful stuff.- Joe Chamberlin (@realjchamberlin) August 13, 2014
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.
@mitchsherman Is NU "relevant" & "stable" or was Wed's interview just SE realizing he needed to say something this year PRIOR to season?— David (@drhgeronimo) August 14, 2014
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.
@mitchsherman they gonna put jabril peppers in the hall of fame during the season or you think they'll wait until after the year?— Nate James (@FortuNateShev) August 15, 2014
The Wildcats didn't exactly look like a team in crisis.
They've endured a lot in the past 10 months, from a season-crippling Big Ten losing streak to the potentially locker room splintering unionization campaign with no resolution. The latest blow arrived Wednesday, as star running back Venric Mark announced he would transfer, the day after he oozed optimism about the 2014 season. To make things worse, Northwestern also learned leading receiver Christian Jones would miss the season with a left knee injury.
Wednesday's news sparked doom-and-gloom forecasts among fans and media members, but there were no dark clouds above the Wildcats as they went through their workout.
Fitzgerald provided few details about Mark's departure other than confirming that the running back could have remained on the team but chose to transfer. It's unclear whether Mark would have faced additional playing-time discipline beyond the initial two games if he decided to stay.
Mark left the team's off-site training camp Wednesday morning and the team learned of his departure after practice that night.
"I don't think many people knew about it, if anyone knew about it," senior safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "It was definitely a tough loss. It was a family member that our guys knew [and] love. It's kind of sad to see him go."
Campbell spoke to Mark, who told him that he was "going through some things at home" and needed to be closer to his family in Houston. Mark hopes to play this season but might face several hurdles to be eligible. He has one course to complete this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.
"Like I told him and his mom, we'll help him in any way we can," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see where that goes. That's out of my control. ... It's an unfortunate part of college football, but it happens. The challenge, quite frankly, is on him. We move on. The program moves on. The challenge is always on the individuals."
Northwestern likes its depth both at running back and wide receiver despite the losses of Mark and Jones. Veteran Treyvon Green leads the running back group, but two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, are expected to play this fall, Fitzgerald said. Northwestern also has experience at receiver with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater, the USC transfer who finally looks ready to blossom.
The biggest void could be at punt returner, where Mark earned All-America honors in 2012. Campbell and wideout Mike McHugh both practiced catching punts Thursday. Northwestern lacked big-play ability both on offense and special teams last season, two spots where Mark could have helped.
While the Wildcats seemingly have faced more adversity than most teams in the offseason, Fitzgerald isn't concerned about the cumulative effects.
"Externally, it would seem like it has been maybe overwhelming, but internally I think it’s a lot different," Fitzgerald said. "... I read somewhere that Nebraska lost a couple guys. It's tough stuff, but that's why you recruit guys, that's why you coach 'em up.
"That injury or that circumstance is really tough for a guy, but it's another man's opportunity. It's their job to step up, and I know our guys will."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:
2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien
Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell
Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.
Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200
Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190
Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.
Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.
Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.
Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.
What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.
All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.
Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.
They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue
Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins
Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.
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.
Congrats to Curtis Samuel and Raekwon McMillan for being the first 2 freshmen to get their black stripes removed! pic.twitter.com/OZg6314sZ9— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 10, 2014
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
Mark's transfer leaves more questions than answers at this point. The team announced last week that he would be suspended for the first two games this fall for violating an unspecified team policy. Mark learned of the suspension in June and appealed it, and while he called it "shocking" while speaking with reporters Tuesday, he also accepted it.
"Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts really bad," Mark said Tuesday after practice. "But there's no point in pouting. I'm going to embrace it."
New developments that surfaced after Mark's media appearance and before Wednesday night's announcement contributed to Mark's ultimate decision, ESPN.com has learned. Whether those developments were additional violations/discipline from the school or something unrelated -- like a family issue -- aren't known at this point.
"Northwestern has been an indescribable experience for me," Mark said in a prepared statement. "It has been my home for four years, and has molded me into the man I am. I’m one class shy of the Northwestern degree I’ve worked so hard for, and I will graduate. I’m devastated to leave my second home, but life is full of challenges and I’ve been presented with another one. Right now this is what is best for me and my family."
Coach Pat Fitzgerald added that Northwestern will miss Mark but that this is "unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him."
It will be interesting to see whether Mark ends up at an FCS school or petitions to play immediately at an FBS program like Houston or Rice.
Mark earned All-America honors as a punt returner and second-team All-Big Ten honors as a running back during a breakout 2012 season, where he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and had two punt-return scores. He missed most of last season with leg injuries but was granted an extra year.
This is a significant loss for Northwestern because of Mark's speed and playmaking ability. But the Wildcats have good depth at running back with Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long, and brought in several talented freshman recruits, including Justin Jackson.
The depth at wide receiver also is good with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, and others. Northwestern figures to be more of a pass-oriented offense with Trevor Siemian as the sole quarterback.
The shock value here is certainly significant, perhaps more so than the actual losses. But Northwestern's offense could use all the weapons it can get after a subpar 2013 season.
Check back for more developments.
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 ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
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.
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.
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.
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.
@BennettESPN could you match up the bottom 5 sec teams and the bottom 5 big ten teams from a year ago just to see what Spurrier thinks?— Heff Jurda (@JeffHurdaCow) August 8, 2014
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.
@BennettESPN I know it's too early, but if you had to do a 2015 B1G preseason ranking, what would it look like?— Timmer Shay (@TimShay17) August 8, 2014
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.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
14:15 3rd Qtr South Dakota 13 3 Oregon 41 8:52 3rd Qtr 25 Washington 17 Hawaii 13 Final 1 Florida State 37 Oklahoma State 31 Final West Virginia 23 2 Alabama 33 Final Louisiana Tech 16 4 Oklahoma 48 Final 5 Ohio State 34 Navy 17 Final Arkansas 21 6 Auburn 45 Final 7 UCLA 28 Virginia 20 Final UC Davis 0 11 Stanford 45 Final 16 Clemson 21 12 Georgia 45 Final 14 Wisconsin 24 13 LSU 28 Final Fresno State 13 15 USC 52 Final Rice 17 17 Notre Dame 48 Final Stephen F. Austin 16 20 Kansas State 55 Final Florida Atlantic 7 22 Nebraska 55 Final Liberty 29 23 North Carolina 56 Final South Dakota State 18 24 Missouri 38
Final 21 Texas A&M 52 9 South Carolina 28 Final Boise State 13 18 Ole Miss 35 Final Weber State 14 19 Arizona State 45