Chicago Colleges: Northwestern Wildcats

Video: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
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video 
Coach Pat Fitzgerald talks about how Northwestern is re-establishing the "Wildcat way," and he shares his expectations for the upcoming season.

B1G coaches see playoff as equalizer

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

And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.

"That football side now matters."

Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.

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

"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."

Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.

"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"

Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.

"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."

The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.

"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."

Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.

So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?

"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."

Ten storylines for Big Ten media days

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

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

B1G media day preview: Northwestern

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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SEC media days finally have wrapped up, and several other leagues will be on the stage next week. The Big Ten holds its media festivities July 28-29 in Chicago, and we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Northwestern is next on the proverbial dais, as coach Pat Fitzgerald will be joined by quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Collin Ellis.

1. How much is the unionizing debate impacting Northwestern's season preparations?

The last we saw Wildcats players, they were casting a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to rule on the university's appeal of the regional office's decision that would permit a union. If the NLRB rejects the appeal, the votes would be unsealed. The timing for the NLRB's ruling is unknown, and even if the appeal is shot down, the players are expected to vote down the union. But the debate was a major distraction during spring practice and could surface again during a critical preseason, where Northwestern must come together. Expect Fitzgerald and the players to downplay the union talk, although it will be interesting to see what Campbell, a close friend of union catalyst Kain Colter, has to say.

2. How will the offensive approach change with Siemian at the controls?

The big plus coming out of the spring was Siemian establishing himself as the top quarterback and clear-cut team leader. He shared quarterbacking duties with Colter the past two seasons, which worked at times but also muddled Northwestern's offensive identity. Siemian's strength as a passer, combined with a more experienced offensive line, suggests Northwestern will return to the pass-first approach it used from 2007-2010. The Wildcats return their three pass-catchers from 2013 -- Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale -- and should be strong on the perimeter if they choose to feature the air game. But they also are extremely deep at running back as Venric Mark, a 2012 All-Big Ten selection, returns from injury. Northwestern undoubtedly will pass more with Siemian, but it can't neglect Mark, its most explosive player.

3. What are the biggest priorities entering preseason camp?

Fitzgerald admitted late in the spring that Northwestern is behind schedule after missing a bowl game and the practices that go along with them. The Wildcats also had 11 players miss the spring with injuries, including projected starters like Mark and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, and potential starters like defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Cornerback Daniel Jones, an opening day starter in 2012, also should be back from a knee injury. The defensive line will be a focal point as McEvilly, Odenigbo and Gibson return to the rotation. Northwestern also must figure out its running back rotation, how promising young defensive backs like Godwin Igwebuike will be used and who emerges in the kicking game, as All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs.

Tough slates tougher on some B1G teams

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

That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?

The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.

"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."

It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.

They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.

"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."

For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."

Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.

While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996 and 2000.

"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.

"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."

There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.

Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.

"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."

The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?

While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.

But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.

"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."

It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.

"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."

Big Ten's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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Pre-fireworks links:
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We have more voices there who are respected."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

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

What's on your mind?

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Big Ten's lunch links

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

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

Gauging B1G nonleague slates not easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Send me your thoughts.

Big Ten's lunch links

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

Q&A: Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
9:00
AM CT
Northwestern’s coming off an unusual 2013 season -- losing four straight games by one score -- and has endured quite the unique offseason with the unionization vote.

Through it all, redshirt senior Trevor Siemian has been a constant for the Wildcats. He’s a team leader, the starting quarterback -- and a big reason this team isn’t overly concerned with Kain Colter's graduation.

ESPN.com checked in with Siemian recently to chat about some hypotheticals, the goals for this season -- and about his unhealthy obsession with a certain rock band that formed in the '90s.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThere are very few things that Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian values more than a Dave Matthews Band concert.
Important first question for you, Trevor. It’s fourth-and-goal. You’re on the 5-yard-line. There’s one second left, and you’re down by five. What play do you call?

Trevor Siemian: Four verticals, and pick a matchup -- and let one of our receivers make a play, give him a chance. Yeah, I don’t think I’d go wrong there. At that point in time, it’s just a matter of who’s going to step up and make a big play for us. Maybe throw a fade or an inside vertical to Christian [Jones] or Dan Vitale.

You didn’t really have to think about that -- at all. Is that just because you always have to be ready for something like that, in case you’re in a no-huddle or there are no timeouts?

TS: We play fast as heck anyway. [Laughs] So a play’s over, and I’m already thinking most of the time what we’re running before our guys are even tackled. I just think it’s instinctive because when you try to push the tempo, you see down and distance and, from there, what the game plan is, so you’re just trying not to be surprised by the call when it comes in. I’ve been here for four-and-a-half, five years so I kind of have a good feel for what they’re thinking and vice versa. It’s good that we’re on the same page.

Good answer -- so let me shoot another hypothetical your way. Tomorrow, a new NCAA rule says Northwestern can pick any player in the Big Ten and add him to the roster. Who are you taking?

TS: Oh man, that’s still playing? I’m trying to think. I got to be careful here. ... I don’t know, maybe that running back from Wisconsin -- Melvin Gordon's pretty good. I’m trying to think of who else but, you know, I’m really not sure.

It seemed like you had an answer waiting if I said you could’ve picked a guy from last year. You have someone in mind there?

TS: You know, I was going to tell you Chris Borland. I thought he was pretty good when he played us.

You said before that fans recognize you around campus and will ask for a photo or autograph every now and then. But let me flip that around: What’s one celebrity that’d make you go fan-boy crazy if you met them?

TS: Probably Dave Matthews. I’m a big Dave Matthews fan; that’d be pretty cool to meet him. And maybe like the president would be pretty cool, too.

I love how Dave Matthews was your first choice, and Barack Obama was No. 2. Why such a big DMB fan?

TS: I don’t know. I think with Dave fans, it’s like if you’re a fan of Dave Matthews, you’re in this community. It’s like everyone is beaucoup crazy for Dave Matthews. I am to a certain extent -- I don’t have any Dave tattoos or anything, like I see at his concerts with some people going a little overboard with. But I think it’s a little different from most other bands; the following seems to be almost more dedicated.

Well, if I have to ask since you’re such a big Dave fan, what’s your favorite song?

TS: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if it’s my favorite song, but here’s a funny story: One of my roommates used to always play, ‘You and Me’ with his girlfriend in high school. So whenever I’m with him, I’ll try to sneak in and play ‘You and Me’ loudly on my phone. But, for me, maybe ‘Funny the Way It Is.’ I don’t know, picking a Dave song is like ... I don’t know. I’m actually going to see them July 5, I want to say.

We’ve covered your favorite musician, so I feel like it’s only natural to ask -- what’s your favorite movie?

TS: I like Shawshank Redemption, but my favorite movie is Sandlot for sure. I must’ve watched it 600 times when I was a kid, and I just dig it. I’m a big Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez fan. I thought the characters were pretty cool -- like Squints, the Ham -- I just thought it was a cool movie. They have to turn it back on sometime soon here.

I haven’t seen that movie in FOR-EV-ER. But let’s switch gears here a minute. There’s been quite a bit of talk about unionization, and I know you don’t want to dwell on that. But you and your teammates didn’t all agree here -- how is that going to affect you guys when the season starts?

TS: I think it was tough to say going through it all when it happened. But 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.

Finish this sentence: Northwestern’s 2014 season will be a success if __________.

TS: We win the Rose Bowl.

I should've seen that coming. Anyway, we’re in World Cup mode, and I asked Rutgers’ tight end this. So final question: Who’s going to win it all this year?

TS: My heart wants to say USA, man. Big time. And we got a chance. I thought going into it, before we beat Ghana -- I’m not going to lie -- I thought Argentina was going to run away with it. And Brazil tied Mexico, so I don’t know how strong they look either. But, in a perfect world, USA wins on a Clint Dempsey 89th-minute goal to seal the deal.

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