- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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I'm pumped up to return to the mailbag rotation after a busy week at Big Ten media days and the Big Ten coaches car wash at ESPN last week. Remember that you can always ask questions on Twitter, and we've all got our own individual accounts now. Follow me @BennettESPN. I'll also be doing a mailbag Friday.
Now, on to your questions ...
Tom from Omaha writes: Looking at the West Division this year, I feel like Nebraska is the most talented and proven (Wisconsin lost a lot). However, I also think that it's very likely that the best of the West (NU in my opinion) may not win the West because of its tough schedule. What do you think?
@BennettESPN which true freshmen on offense and defense do you see having the greatest impact on the Hoosiers this fall?
— Nick Holmes ( @HoosierHolmes) Aug. 5, 2014
Bennett: Tom, I think you hit the nail on the head. As I evaluate the individual teams, I like Nebraska's overall roster the best. The Huskers have far fewer question marks than Wisconsin and better overall athleticism, in my opinion, than Iowa. (Though that didn't help Nebraska much last year in Lincoln vs. the Hawkeyes. Bo Pelini's team was pretty beat up by then and there was a lot of negativity around the program, but Iowa still took it to them on the road).
There's no question Nebraska has a tougher schedule than either Iowa or Wisconsin. The Huskers have to go to both Madison and Iowa City, and they drew Michigan State on the road as a crossover while neither the Hawkeyes nor the Badgers have to play any of the top East contenders. Schedules definitely matter. I think the Spartans would have won the Big Ten regardless last fall, but their crossover games -- Indiana, Illinois and Purdue, with no Wisconsin or Ohio State -- certainly didn't hurt. A true championship team can overcome schedule hurdles, however. We'll have to see if Nebraska is good enough to do so.
Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Florida, writes: It seems like the new CFB Playoff dilemma will be which Power 5 conference gets left out (according to most media outlets anyway). Well, I decided to take a look at the final standings of all the Power 5 conferences for the past three years, and it looks like it would have been a very easy decision in my opinion. 2011: sorry, ACC. 2012: sorry, B1G. And, finally, 2013: sorry Big 12. It's similar to "What will we do when there are more than two undefeated teams and the BCS computers break?" Well, we know that was rarely the issue ... everything tends to work itself out. Do you really think this will be an issue?
Bennett: If it was as simple as determining which conference should be left out, that would be one thing -- and there's no doubt the Big Ten wouldn't have stood a chance in 2012. The selection committee will also have to decide if there are two worthy teams from one conference (hello there, SEC fans). Conference strength shouldn't matter as much as how good an individual team is and who it played during the nonconference schedule. For example, let's say the Big Ten is down as a whole this year, but Michigan State or Wisconsin plows through the league undefeated. If they also won their marquee nonconference games (Oregon and LSU, respectively) and those opponents went on to have the kind of seasons we expect, then a weak Big Ten wouldn't hold them down.
I agree that it's going to be very rare, if not outright impossible, to have more than four undefeated teams. The real wrangling will be over similar 1-loss teams who played very different schedules. College football has always had a numbers problem, as the Big Ten and Big 12 membership illustrates. Now it has five power conferences for four playoff spots. And so it goes.
Bennett: You can never predict with precision which true freshmen will perform at a high level right away. Players develop at different rates, learn the finer points of the game at different speeds, suffer from home sickness, etc. That said, I tend to lean toward freshmen who A) enrolled early to get a head start on the process and B) play a position where it's easier to have an immediate impact. Based on what I saw in the spring, my pick on offense for the Indiana offense is wide receiver Dominique Booth. He's got a good build at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he was a well-regarded recruit, and he plays a position of need for the Hoosiers after the loss of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. I'd be surprised if he didn't get some early playing time.
IU didn't have any early enrollees on defense, but I think Kevin Wilson could call on some young guys in the secondary. So I'll go with safety Will Dawkins. Wilson has never been shy about throwing true freshmen into the fire, though the hope is that his staff has built enough depth now that they won't be relied upon as much in 2014.
Dave from Ann Arbor, Michigan writes: Hey, Brian, I'm curious about what you recently described as a "quirk of the new division setup" -- Michigan's return to East Lansing for a second year in a row. It means that, with the Notre Dame series ending, from now on Michigan will have no rivalry home games every other year. With plunging student-ticket sales and permanently less appealing schedules because of Maryland and Rutgers, this seems like a fairly serious issue. Sure, the "on" years with Michigan State and Ohio State in Ann Arbor will be great, but consistency seems more important. I doubt Dave Brandon likes the situation, but why wasn't he able to stop it?
Bennett: Schools didn't have a whole lot of say in the formation of the schedule once they all agreed on some general principles. And, naturally, Michigan didn't want the Notre Dame series to end how it did. You're right that some home schedules may suffer a little bit. However, in 2016, when the Michigan State and Ohio State games are away, Wisconsin and Penn State come to the Big House. In 2018, Nebraska joins those two teams as visitors to Ann Arbor. They may not be historic rivals, but those should still be attractive games. And the loss of the Notre Dame series allows Michigan to schedule some very good nonconference home-and-homes, which will mean visits in the future from Arkansas ('18), Virginia Tech ('20), UCLA ('22) and Oklahoma ('26) in those even-numbered years.
Jules M. from Chicago writes: Hi, BB, I have a few questions for you, please, pick any or all to answer: Since there is no chance of going to a bowl game anytime soon, is there any hope ILLINOIS could lure Jim Tressel from Akron to get back into coaching? Who do you think would be a strong candidate to rebuild ILLINOIS Football after the disastrous Tim Beckman era hopefully ends in 2014? Do you think it's possible that AD Mike Thomas fires Beckman midway through the season and allows Bill Cubit to be the interim head coach to finish out the 2014 season?
Bennett: Wow. I thought the preseason was supposed to be a time for optimism. I don't ever like to speculate on successors until a coaching change is clearly coming, and I don't root for any coach to lose his job. I will say that there's a good chance that the Illini are 4-2 after their first six games if they beat the teams they will be favored against. If so, that means Illinois would be in bowl contention for the entire month of November. I don't expect any kind of midseason firing in Champaign unless things go horribly awry.