Big Ten mailbag


So let's see ... since the last time I dipped into ye olde mailbag, the calendar flipped to 2015, the Big Ten became home to the national champions and two Big Ten quarterbacks played in a Super Bowl.

Yeah, it's been a long time. Way too long, actually. So before another big event takes place -- the sugar high of signing day draws near -- I just had to answer some of your questions.

Brian Bennett: Two similar questions here from Patrick and John, and they're good ones. Without question, Ohio State's national championship -- as well as strong performances by other Big Ten teams in the postseason, most notably Michigan State and Wisconsin -- has completely flipped the script on the Big Ten narrative.

Thank goodness for that. Not because I have any rooting interest in the league's success or failure, but because the whole notion that the conference was miles away from the SEC and other conferences was exaggerated to begin with and became incredibly tiresome the past few years. The best counterargument to such claims is always: "Scoreboard!" Finally, the Big Ten can say that. And after witnessing Buckeyes players run away from Alabama and Oregon defenders, the "Big Ten speed" jokes officially must be retired for at least the next eight months.

Ohio State should start the 2015 season off as No. 1, and Michigan State will be a top 10 team again. You can't put a price tag on that value. The Buckeyes' title bought credibility not just for themselves but for the entire league. If anyone can defeat Urban Meyer's team in 2015, it will gain a huge boost for beating the defending national champs. Similarly, Ohio State will get the benefit of the doubt if it is involved in a comparison of one-loss teams at the end of the season. While the selection committee is charged with reviewing the current season's results only, members would be hard pressed to leave out the defending champs if résumés are mostly equal otherwise.

"The Big Ten is back" theme will likely be as overstated this offseason as "The Big Ten is dead" story line was in previous years. Still, this one is a lot more enjoyable, and it's up to the league to build upon hard-fought success.

Alex from Kenosha, Wis., writes: With Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, and Ameer Abdullah gone to the NFL, who is going to be the next big back in the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: The three guys you mentioned were phenomenal, but don't forget about Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb. That's five of the top 19 rushers in the FBS, so a ton of talent is leaving at the tailback position.

Yet the Big Ten often easily replenishes its running backs, and the next big back is one who already announced himself as a superstar in early 2015: Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national title game is an early Heisman Trophy contender (not to mention an obvious future eight-minute abs pitchman). The only question about Elliott's production in '15 is whether Ohio State will have enough touches to go around with its abundance of playmakers.

Add Corey Clement to the list of budding stars, as he'll move to the front of Wisconsin's assembly line of stud tailbacks. Clement ran for 949 yards -- 10th best in the Big Ten -- despite backing up a guy who ran for the second-most yards ever in an FBS season. Amazing.

Northwestern's Justin Jackson deserves mention, too. Despite a mediocre yards per carry average (4.8), he racked up 1,187 rushing yards in 12 games as a true freshman. That was impressive.

Brian Bennett: Speaking of running back talent, I think that's the position where the Scarlet Knights could shine in 2015. Paul James was headed toward an excellent campaign before he was lost for the year to injury for a second straight season. No Rutgers player ran for more than 447 yards all season. But freshman Josh Hicks erupted for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl, while fellow freshman Robert Martin delivered an even 100 yards in the same game. Throw in Desmon Peoples and hopefully a healthy return by James, and Rutgers could be pretty loaded in the backfield next season.

Brian Bennett: That's a question best answered three or four years from now. The one concern I had about Nebraska's hiring of Riley was whether he would be able to recruit nationally, something that's necessary for the Huskers to succeed. Riley ran more of a developmental program at Oregon State, though the Beavers don't have anywhere near the resources that Nebraska boasts.

That said, I've been pretty impressed thus far with Riley and his staff. Hanging on to DaiShon Neal despite a late (and reportedly botched) push from Michigan was big, and the Huskers have attacked specific areas of need in this class. What I've really liked is how enthusiastically Riley and his staff have embraced the recruiting efforts, for instance keying fans in to where they're traveling to visit prospects on Twitter. Bo Pelini and his staff never seemed to enjoy the showmanship aspect of recruiting, but I think you need to draw attention to yourself at a place like Nebraska, which is not surrounded by a built-in talent base. Riley's approach offers encouragement for the future.

Steven from Chicago writes: What will it take for Paul Chryst to get the Badgers some top 20 recruiting classes? Does it even matter with the way Wisconsin develops its players so well?

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin is ranked 29th right now by ESPN Recruiting, though some recent defections may hurt. The Badgers finished 34th in 2013 and 33rd in 2013. The difference between that and a top-20 class is fairly negligible, in my view. Wisconsin is likely never going to have a top 10-type class because it simply cannot profit from a lot of homegrown, blue-chip talent.

But as you mentioned, few schools do as good a job in developing talent as the Badgers do. The program's recent history is full of walk-ons or no-name recruits turning into stars in Madison, and Wisconsin knows exactly what type of player it wants for a system that has changed little in two decades. Chryst will need to improve the recruiting at certain positions, especially wide receiver and quarterback. I've never quite understood why more receivers wouldn't want to play for the Badgers, since they're almost always wide open on play-action calls. Still, Chryst has shown he can mold offensive talent, so I'm never going to be too worried about the star rankings of Wisconsin's classes.