Chicago Colleges: Darrell Hazell
Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):
Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.
Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.
No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.
Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.
1. What's the secret?: Chalk it up as gamesmanship or protecting the offensive plan, but there's really no reason for Brady Hoke to be trying to hide his starting quarterback at this point. For one thing, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has already made it clear that he won't waste time preparing for a "ghost," which means he's already gearing his team up for Devin Gardner. Considering Gardner's multipurpose abilities, it would seem far easier for the Gophers to adjust to Shane Morris if the Wolverines elect to start him, so there doesn't seem to be much gained there. And from a Michigan standpoint, if Hoke is sticking by Gardner, wouldn't he be better served with a public vote of confidence from his coach instead of leaving open the debate about which option is really best to lead the attack? Hoke surely has enough to worry about at this point elsewhere, and he's never seemed all that concerned about public perception when it comes to his news conferences. But it's hard to think guarding a secret about his starting quarterback is worth the effort, and there's a chance it might actually be doing damage.
2. Sneaky-good game of the weekend: Before the season started, it was easy to overlook the matchup. Even now with both teams bringing a loss into the weekend, it might still not stand out as worth watching. But Maryland visiting Indiana for the Big Ten opener for both promises to be entertaining, and it may also have the benefit of being a worthwhile win for the victor down the road. The Hoosiers put themselves back on track for a possible bowl bid with their win at Missouri last weekend, and the Terrapins have emerged as something of a dark horse threat in the East Division with their only loss coming in a shootout against a tough West Virginia squad. There's much more on the line than might have been guessed before the season when it just looked like the conference debut for Maryland, and it certainly will be worth watching on Saturday afternoon.
3. Buckeyes scrambling to replace Spence: Ohio State already had to rely on Steve Miller to fill the void at defensive end left by Noah Spence's suspension before his second failed drug test, so it hasn't had to come up with a new solution since a second failed drug test made it unlikely they would ever get the All-Big Ten pass-rusher back on the field. But what would happen now if Miller goes down or the Buckeyes need to expand the rotation back to eight or nine guys up front as they originally planned? It's possible Adolphus Washington might again be forced to move back outside after seemingly finding a spot to settle once and for all on the interior, and Urban Meyer admitted there have been discussions about making that adjustment. But he indicated it won't happen this week, which could put freshmen Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes in line for action against Cincinnati. That definitely wasn't what Ohio State had in mind before the season when the line was touted as perhaps the nation's best unit, but that's now the reality of its situation.
- Derrick Green has officially pulled away from the pack in the Michigan backfield.
- Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford is ready for action.
- Patience has been a virtue for Penn State's Zach Zwinak.
- Is the cornerback position at Rutgers cursed?
- How will Maryland adjust to address the loss of tight end Andrew Isaacs?
- What would it take for Tevin Coleman to get some Heisman Trophy love?
- Ohio State H-back Jalin Marshall weighs in on a potential "statement game" against Cincinnati.
- From trash talk to cheap shots, Nebraska's Randy Gregory is getting plenty of attention this season.
- Purdue has already doubled its win total from last season and Darrell Hazell believes things are pointing in the right direction.
- Minnesota isn't planning to win any Big Ten games with just 7 passing yards. In the past, the Gophers have actually won with less.
- A look at everything that goes into handling a weather delay like Illinois had last weekend.
- Fullbacks may be falling by the wayside nationally, but the position is still alive and well at Iowa.
- Northwestern has the speakers blaring at practice and is ready to hit the road to take on Penn State.
- Blitzing is all about effort, and that's no problem for Wisconsin's Derek Landisch.
- The timing of Penn State's bowl ban being lifted coincides nicely with Saturday's trip to Rutgers. We knew the Scarlet Knights faithful would be geared up for Rutgers' Big Ten debut against the program of record in the Mid-Atlantic region. Now Penn State fans will be even more energized as their team is eligible for a Big Ten championship and a postseason berth. I'll be at a non-Big Ten venue on Saturday night, but I can't wait to see the images from Piscataway, as High Points Solutions Stadium will be rocking for the first conference game of the season. Good times.
- The Big Ten's Week 3 schedule lacks the national showcase opportunities we saw in Week 2, but there are some sneaky good matchups that could help or hurt the league's profile. Illinois aims for a bowl-boosting road upset against Washington, which has struggled in its first two games under new coach Chris Petersen. West Virginia, which visits Maryland on Saturday, looks much improved after testing Alabama in Week 1 and thumping Towson. Minnesota tries to validate its stock with a road win against TCU, while Iowa faces an Iowa State team that nearly stunned Kansas State last week. Notre Dame is a heavy favorite against Purdue, but the Boilermakers have given the Irish their best shot in recent years.
- Perhaps we should expect this early in the season, but it seems like Big Ten coaches are being outwitted quite a bit by their opponents. In Week 1, Northwestern's staff admitted it didn't expect Cal to use freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer as a complement to Jared Goff. Now Ohio State's coaches say they didn't expect Virginia Tech's defense to load the box so much or Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer to move around so much in the pocket. "That is the first time I've seen that kind of defense, maybe in our coaching career, where they were all [within] six yards [of the line of scrimmage]," Urban Meyer said. Meyer is a big fan of hyperbole, so take that into account. I just wonder when Big Ten teams will get the schematic edge in some of these games.
To the links ...
- Brady Hoke says the true fans will stick with Michigan despite its struggles.
- A look at where Ohio State goes after its first regular-season loss under Meyer.
- A look back at the Rutgers-Penn State trash talk as a rivalry builds.
- After the Oregon letdown, Michigan State focuses on stopping the big play.
- Indiana needs QB Nate Sudfeld to reverse his road woes.
- Maryland RB Brandon Ross could lose his starting job because he's losing the football.
- Nebraska's latest injury report is a bit of a mixed bag.
- Darrell Hazell is undecided on Purdue's top QB for the Notre Dame game.
- Illinois aims for just its fifth 3-0 start in the past quarter-century at Washington.
- Wisconsin's early season adversity could pay off later this fall.
- An interesting take on why Iowa State (not Iowa) should drop the Cy-Hawk game.
- The Daily Gopher looks ahead to the TCU game.
- Breaking down the film of Northwestern's latest ugly loss.
- Doug Lesmerises' genius plan to fix the Big Ten.
- Maryland associate athletic director Ryan Bowles is helping to oversee Maryland's transition to the Big Ten -- and making changes and tweaks to athletics in preparation of the July 1 move.
- As questions loom over Rutgers' readiness for the B1G, athletic director Julie Hermann is preparing the university and speaking in "equal parts promise and hyperbole."
- BTN releases its "All-Leaders Defensive Team," which takes a look at the top players in the division from 2011 to 2013.
- For the first time in four seasons, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen will oversee a specific position: outside linebacker.
- Iowa TE Ray Hamilton has been patiently waiting his turn, and now he's on pace to fill the big shoes of C.J. Fiedorowicz. Can the Hawkeyes defense survive without their linebacking trio?
- James Franklin's "Lasch Bash" gives Penn State recruits and commits a taste of the program. Monday's report regarding Tom Corbett's handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse investigation is unlikely to change many minds.
- A longtime Nebraska fan, a season ticket holder since the 1950s, fulfills one of his life's last dreams with a private tour of the football stadium.
- Purdue coach Darrell Hazell talks about the new NCAA rule that allows for "football summer school" and compares it to 6 a.m. workouts, when you can use everything but a ball.
- Michigan TE commit Chris Clark on the rivalry with Ohio State: "We taking over."
- A good look at the real reasons behind the Big Ten's latest expansion.
- League commissioner Jim Delany might have hurt the NCAA in the O'Bannon case.
- Urban Meyer talks culture, moving past last season's losses and more in this Q&A. The Buckeyes flip a decorated offensive line recruit from Miami.
- Outgoing Penn State AD Dave Joyner wants to be judged on his record. The Lions' recruiting surge continues.
- Northwestern's punter says the school threatened to take away current benefits if players unionize. Former Northwestern RB Malin Jones lands at Louisville.
- Damore’ea Stringfellow shouldn't have committed to Nebraska if he was still eying other schools, Sam McKweon writes.
- Michigan State's player development success pays off on the recruiting trail, as the team gets Justice -- Alexander, that is.
- Brandon Scherff has a bright future with Iowa and beyond. The Hawkeyes return to Florida for their latest recruit.
- Maryland's mammoth recruiting month continues.
- Michigan's freshman class expects to make an immediate impact.
- A look at whether Minnesota's Jerry Kill can surpass Glen Mason territory.
- Darrell Hazell preaches accountability to Purdue's players.
- Good news on the condition of Isaac Kolstad, the man allegedly assaulted by Philip Nelson.
- Eleven Warriors previews Wisconsin.
- Indiana adds another in-state recruit for 2015.
Follow us on Twitter and send us questions there.
Michael from New York writes: Regarding the Penn State/Georgia State camp; If the SEC relaxes their rules on this issue, do you foresee a series of tit-for-tat battles ensuing? For example, UG retaliates by scheduling something with East Stroudsburg U. in Pennsylvania. And to play this situation out, would small schools in Pennsylvania resist overtures such as the one above for fear of antagonizing big brother PSU?
Adam Rittenberg: I absolutely think the SEC coaches would start guest-coaching in other regions, and they should. Setting up something with James Franklin's alma mater would be a pretty bold move, but why should those small schools shy away from having these big-time coaches at their camps? Georgia State and Stetson welcomed Franklin and his staff, and I'd expect Northern schools to do the same if SEC coaches expressed interest.
Adam Rittenberg: Love the optimism, John! I print what I get and I don't hear nearly enough from Illinois fans. Illinois' defense should be better than last year, but the team undoubtedly will rely on the offense, which made major strides and retains some good pieces, namely a line featuring four returning starters.
I saw Lunt practice in Chicago and he has a big arm that should allow Illinois to stretch the field. How does Illinois get to 8-4? It starts by winning at home, as the schedule at Memorial Stadium is pretty manageable. Illinois' road slate -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is very tough.
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, it's hard to know for sure, but I think Michigan State would have been the fourth team in the playoff, behind Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. The Pac-12 had a stronger national perception than the Big Ten, and Stanford had a very good team, but the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Utah team and a USC squad that lingered on the fringes of the Top 25. The Big Ten might have been down, but Michigan State won all nine of its league contests by double digits. Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a game with some controversial calls. Bottom line: the Spartans deserved to make the playoff ahead of a two-loss Pac-12 champion.
Adam Rittenberg: Hackenberg is a good choice, although I worry about Penn State's protection issues with so little proven depth on the offensive line. I disagree with you about Iowa. The Hawkeyes' track record shows a ton of close games and quite a few come-from-behind wins late in those contests. The opportunities will be there for Jake Rudock to be the hero.
Adam Rittenberg: As ESPN2 play-by-play man Mark Jones said of Scott Starks' fumble return, "What a turnaround! A cataclysmic turn of events!" Unfortunately for Purdue, those words proved true as the program hasn't found that level of success again. There have been very good players in the program -- Ryan Kerrigan, Kawann Short, Anthony Spencer -- but the team has struggled to turn a corner and compete for league titles. Purdue is a tough job, and the fan apathy has made it tougher. What Joe Tiller did there is still pretty remarkable.
How can Purdue regain its footing? It starts with recruiting and finding certain pipelines, like the one Tiller had to Texas, and Darrell Hazell and his staff are working hard to do that. Purdue has a great quarterback tradition that must be maximized. The recent QB recruiting has been very strong. Another step is line play, especially on the offensive side. Purdue needs to get stronger, more athletic linemen to be able to do more with the offense.
Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.
So let's get started ...
Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?
VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.
Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.
Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?
Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.
Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.
Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.
When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?
Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.
VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.
What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?
Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.
VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.
Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.
Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.
The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.
If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.
"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."
NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.
The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.
"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"
DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.
Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."
"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.
"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."
DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.
It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."
Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.
Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.
"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."
Coaches say the parental component is critical.
"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."
"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."
Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.
"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."
Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."
The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.
It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."
Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.
"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."
That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.
"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."
The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
What's on your mind?
rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, love the blog! After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future? That'd surely solve things, eh?
"No, not really. I don't know about my colleagues in the league, but I think when you look at different conferences, they have to do what they have to do based on their makeup, based on their geography and their fan base. Whether they go nine or eight games, that's really based on who they are. I really don't have a preference and would not want to even try and direct how those conferences should go. They're living in it, they're working in it, they know their travel issues and all that stuff, so for someone outside to project, I just don't think that's right."
Smith did add that the SEC's decision "will ultimately depend on what they're doing in the nonconference. Because their in-conference strength of schedule, the majority of the time, is going to be pretty good. But when you leave four games to the nonconference part of your schedule, you've got to make sure you're able to get who you need to get in order to make that overall schedule strength good."
Translation: SEC teams had better not shy away from playing strong teams in the nonconference, and they'd better hope the teams they schedule years in advance are actually good when the games arrive (see Ohio State's conundrum with the Cal series). Ultimately, the best way to get some uniformity in conference games is not some sort of boycott. It's having the playoff selection committee send a strong message about strength of schedule in its choices for the four-team event.
Eric from Iowa writes: Give the so called "Big 5" conferences more power, eh? More power to create their own rules on things like stipends, medical coverage, family travel benefits, recruiting, etc? ... I'm not going to pretend those conferences aren't already the big money makers of college football, but giving them the autonomy to make these rules for themselves vs. a poor old little MAC school who already struggles to keep up ... proof that the Central Michigans are in place to provide home games for Michigan and MSU, and that's pretty much it.
Bennett: Well, how is that really any different? The Central Michigans of the world are in no way, shape or form on the same playing field right now as the Michigans and Michigan States anyway. The money gap is huge and will continue growing. I think there's an honest desire from the power conferences to give back more to the players (in part, sure, because they're afraid a court or legislature will force them to do so if they don't act first), and if all that's holding them back are mid- and low-major schools that can't afford it, then there need to be different rules in place.
Tony from Auburn Hills, Mich., writes: When Darrell Hazell was announced as head coach for Purdue, everyone assumed he would be bringing that TresselBall that he carried to Kent State, even though Purdue has been a spread team since Joe Tiller brought it to the league. Then the season happened and, well, none of us is really sure what identity the offense was supposed to have. But in the Q&A from last week's lunch links, Hazell said he thinks they'll be a spread team this season. So was this really his plan from the beginning, or is this a change out of pure necessity due to poor recruiting and awful play from the O-line?
Bennett: Hazell has always preached physicality and a strong running game as his base philosophy, so hearing him talk about the spread was surprising -- though as Ohio State showed the past two seasons, the two aren't always mutually exclusive. You're right, Tony, in that Purdue had zero identity last season (or maybe I should say it's identity was a zero) on offense or defense, and the coaching staff might have misread the talents of the players. With an offensive line that's not close to being dominant and speedsters such as Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, the spread might be a better use of the Boilers' current talent, much of which was recruited for a spread system, after all. The smartest coaches adapt their system to the players they have, not the other way around.
John C. from Princeton Jct., N.J., writes: Been a lifelong RU football fan. Have the Knights winning three games this year. May steal one or two more. The athletic department is a mess. And it seems every week it gets worse. Coach Kyle Flood (nice man) plays not to lose. Watch the games, and you will see it. This lack of "killer instinct" has to overflow to the players. I can give multiple examples. What do you think?
Bennett: I don't know about a lack of a killer instinct, but Flood and predecessor Greg Schiano certainly seemed to play a conservative style -- especially on offense. Perhaps that will change with Ralph Friedgen calling the plays, but we shall see. It's not like that type of style would be out of step in the Big Ten, after all. There's no doubt that the Scarlet Knights' inaugural Big Ten schedule is very difficult, and out-of-league games at Washington State and at Navy are no gimmes by any stretch. I think Rutgers will win more than three games, but 5-7 might be a reasonable accomplishment against that slate.
Bran Stark from Winterfell writes: Penny-for-your-thought type of question, Brian ... Iowa clearly has the "easiest" conference schedule of the three preseason favorites of the B1G's West. Next, Wiscy gets Big Red at home and finally my Huskers have to travel to Iowa City, Madison, and East Lansing, coming in at the hardest of the three favorites. If memory serves me correctly, Bo Pelini hasn't lost to any B1G teams twice in a row, and only the terrible Longhorns have notched that feat against him. How much, if at all, do you think the fact that the last time Nebraska played all three of those home teams it ended with losses will have on the team? Mind you, some of those losses came in grand fashion.
Bennett: Thanks for taking time out of your busy warging schedule to write in, Bran. ("Game of Thrones" nerd alert). That's an interesting stat on Pelini, but I'm not sure that history has any bearing on the future. Teams just change too much from year to year for the past season to be a huge factor. And remember the Huskers needed some major comebacks in games against Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State to avoid back-to-back losses. The schedule, though, is definitely worth noting. Nebraska clearly got the toughest draw of the three teams you mentioned. Based on returning talent alone, I would make the Huskers the West Division favorite by a nostril. The schedule could end up keeping them out of Indianapolis. Truly worthy championship teams can overcome it, though.
If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.
1. "I like my team."
2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."
There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.
"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."
Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.
It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.
The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.
Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.
Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.
Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.
Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.
"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.
Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.
"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."
Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.
At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.
"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."
Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.
Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.
The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.
"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."
They won't have to for 132 days.
Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.
Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.
BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?
AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.
As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.
BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?
BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?
AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.
BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?
AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.
BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?
AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.
To the notebook:
- Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
- Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
- RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
- The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
- WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
- Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
- RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
- Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
- Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
- The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
- RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
- Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
- The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
- Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
- Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
- Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
- Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
- The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
- Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
- Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.
Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.
"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."
There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.
Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.
"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.
"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."
Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.
“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."
"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."
The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.
Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.
"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."
That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.
"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
Last summer, before Michigan State ran away with the Legends title in dominant fashion, the division seemed there for the taking. Michigan was a popular pick, so was Nebraska, and Northwestern entered the season in the national rankings. Seasoned Big Ten observers knew better than to count out Michigan State. The Legends was pegged as a four-team race. As it turned out, the two teams generating the least buzz, Iowa and Minnesota, both ended up winning eight games.
The West has a similar look entering the 2014 season. There's no clear-cut favorite, and every team has some potentially fatal flaws.
Wisconsin: Loses 25 seniors and has issues at quarterback, wide receiver and potentially the defensive front seven.
Nebraska: Still a lot of youth at key spots and often plays sloppy; difficult to trust.
Iowa: Offense struggles to score; loses all three starters at linebacker, team's best position group in 2013.
Minnesota: Major quarterback issues, offense often struggles to score and several key defenders depart, including tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and do-it-all defensive back Brock Vereen.
Northwestern: Has lost its crunch-time mojo after a disastrous 2013 season, lingering questions about quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Illinois: Big Ten's worst rush defense still has major concerns, and four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is gone.
Purdue: Do we need to recap last season? Didn't think so.
So there you have it. Is there a 2013 Michigan State in this bunch? Perhaps, but if so, it might qualify as an even bigger surprise than what the Spartans did this past fall.
If parity rules the West, the division title could come down to schedules. Not surprisingly, ESPN Insider's KC Joyner lists Iowa's schedule as a major reason why the Hawkeyes could win the division. Iowa doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- and faces both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. The Hawkeyes' Big Ten road schedule -- Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois -- is extremely favorable.
Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State
Road: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern
No plays: Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana
Home: Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Road: Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois
No plays: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State
Road: Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Road: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Home: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
Road: Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers
Home: Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Road: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana
No plays: Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota
Road: Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State
Iowa and Wisconsin definitely have the edge with schedules. Neither plays any of the big boys in the East, something that thankfully will change with the introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016. The Hawkeyes' schedule is slightly more favorable because they get the Badgers at home.
Minnesota improved in Year 3 under Jerry Kill, but it could have a tough time making additional strides this fall. The Gophers have a challenging road schedule and only one potential gimme at home (Purdue). Northwestern also has a tough slate on its home field and misses three of the potentially weaker East teams, although the Wildcats also don't face either Michigan State or Ohio State.
Purdue is another team with some solid home opponents. The road schedule isn't overly taxing for Darrell Hazell's crew.
Nebraska and Illinois both have potentially favorable home schedules, especially Nebraska, but both squads will be tested plenty on the road.
Time will tell if the West actually becomes a logjam of comparable teams. If so, Iowa and Wisconsin should benefit, and there could be plenty at stake when the teams meet Nov. 22 in Iowa City.
Like a trip to Indianapolis.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 5 Notre Dame 27 2 Florida State 31 Final Tennessee 3 3 Ole Miss 34 Final 4 Baylor 27 West Virginia 41 Final 21 Texas A&M 0 7 Alabama 59 Final 8 Michigan State 56 Indiana 17 Final Washington 20 9 Oregon 45 Final 10 Georgia 45 Arkansas 32 Final 14 Kansas State 31 11 Oklahoma 30 Final 15 Oklahoma State 9 12 TCU 42 Final Rutgers 17 13 Ohio State 56 Final 23 Stanford 10 17 Arizona State 26 Final 19 Nebraska 38 Northwestern 17 Final Colorado 28 22 USC 56 Final 24 Clemson 17 Boston College 13 Final 25 Marshall 45 Florida International 13