Chicago Colleges: Purdue Boilermakers
Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)
Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.
Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.
Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.
Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling
Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.
Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.
Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.
Marcius, a 6-foot-9, 268-pound forward, also considered transferring to Nevada. He will pursue a graduate degree unavailable at Purdue and will be eligible next season.
Marcius played in 29 games, made five starts and averaged 3.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 9.3 minutes for Purdue last season. He led the Boilermakers in blocks in six games and in rebounds once. He had a career-high 13 points against Michigan.
Marcius is the sixth player to be added to DePaul's roster for next season. He joins Morgan Park (Chicago) senior point guard Billy Garrett Jr., IMG Academy (Fla.) senior center Thomas Hamilton Jr., South Plains College (Texas) sophomore center Forrest Robinson, Citrus Junior College (Calif.) sophomore power forward Greg Sequele and Oak Hill Academy (Va.) senior guard R.J. Curington.
DePaul announced in April that junior forward Moses Morgan, sophomore center Derrell Robertson Jr. freshman forward Jodan Price and redshirt freshman forward Montray Clemons were leaving the program.
Coming off its historic BCS playoff appearance, Northern Illinois will play at Iowa on Aug. 31 and at Purdue on Sept. 28 next season. The Huskies lost to Iowa 18-17 at Soldier Field for their only regular-season defense in 2012. Northern Illinois defeated Purdue 28-20 in their last meeting in 2009.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Gonzaga (Dec. 8) vs. Missouri (Dec. 22 in St. Louis)
Next-toughest: Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 9), St. Francis-NY (Nov. 12), at Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Carolina (Dec. 4), Norfolk State (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 16), Auburn (Dec. 29 in Chicago)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The first season of new coach John Groce's tenure kicks off with a pretty standard Illinois schedule, but with a twist -- it isn't often the Illini have chosen to play buzzsaw road games quite like their date at Gonzaga on Dec. 8. And the Maui Invitational is a nice field, too, one that begins with USC and features Texas, North Carolina, Butler and Marquette as possible opponents.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), North Carolina (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Butler (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
The rest: North Dakota State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 15), Ball State (Nov. 25), Coppin State (Dec. 1), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 19), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Indiana prevails over first-round opponent Georgia at the Legends Classic, it will face either UCLA or Georgetown -- both of which would be quality neutral-site opponents. But because the Crossroads Classic is in friendly territory, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge brings North Carolina to Bloomington, the Hoosiers' nonconference schedule sets up the likely preseason No. 1 with a very plausible path to an undefeated pre-New Year's record.
Toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 7), Northern Iowa (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21 in Cancun, Mexico), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 27)
The rest: Texas-Pan American (Nov. 9), Central Michigan (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 17), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 1), South Dakota (Dec. 4), South Carolina State (Dec. 19), Coppin State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The emergence of Iowa State and a neutral-site game with Northern Iowa provide nice dates, but the Cancun Challenge's best teams are DePaul and a rebuilding Wichita State, and Virginia Tech was hollowed out in the wake of coach Seth Greenberg's offseason firing. There's simply not a lot here.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-20 in Ann Arbor, Nov. 21-23 in New York), NC State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Arkansas (Dec. 8), West Virginia (Dec. 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Slippery Rock (Nov. 9), at Bradley (Dec. 1), Western Michigan (Dec. 4), Binghamton (Dec. 11), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 20), Central Michigan (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The NIT Season Tip-Off comprises early-round games against mid-majors at the Crisler Center before presumably taking its show -- which will offer some combination of games against Virginia, Kansas State and/or Pittsburgh -- to Madison Square Garden. There are quality opponents available there, and both West Virginia and Arkansas will present challenges, but other than NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, there are no elite teams on this projected title contender's docket. Good schedule, not great.
Toughest: vs. Connecticut (Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany), vs. Kansas (Nov. 13 in Atlanta)
Next-toughest: at Miami (Nov. 28), Texas (Dec. 22)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Boise State (Nov. 20), Oakland (Nov. 23), Louisiana-Lafayette (Nov. 25), Nicholls State (Dec. 1), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 5), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 8), Tuskegee (Dec. 15), at Bowling Green (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Connecticut might not be Connecticut this season, but playing on an air base in Germany is never going to be easy -- especially when you follow it up four days later with a game against Kansas in Atlanta. Talk about travel. The ACC-Big Ten game at Miami is no slouch either, and Texas will be improved when it comes to East Lansing.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24 in Bahamas), at Florida State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: at USC (Dec. 8)
The rest: American (Nov. 9), Toledo (Nov. 12), Tennessee State (Nov. 15), Richmond (Nov. 18 in St. Paul, Minn.), North Florida (Dec. 1), South Dakota State (Dec. 4), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Lafayette (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- From Nov. 22 to Nov. 27, there are few teams in the country with a schedule as tough as Minnesota's. The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's premier tournament. Minnesota will play Duke, then Memphis or Virginia Commonwealth, and some combination of Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and Stanford just a few days before stopping off at Florida State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Harsh stuff -- and a trip to USC in December is no cakewalk, either.
Toughest: Creighton (Dec. 6), at Oregon (Dec. 15)
Next-toughest: Valparaiso (Nov. 15), at Wake Forest (Nov. 27), USC (Dec. 3)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 11), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 18), Tulane (Nov. 21), Kent State (Nov. 24), Jacksonville State (Dec. 18), Sun Bowl Invitational (Dec. 22-23), Nicholls State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The only marquee opponent on this schedule is Creighton, and Nebraska is lucky enough to get Doug McDermott and Co. at home (even if a number of Jays fans are likely to invade Lincoln). A trip to Oregon won't be easy, but when your next-toughest games are home dates with Valpo and USC, your schedule isn't going to rate that highly. And in a rebuilding year, that's OK.
Toughest: at Baylor (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Maryland (Nov. 27), Butler (Dec. 8), Stanford (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 13), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 15), Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 18), Delaware State (Nov. 20), South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24), Illinois-Chicago (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 17), Brown (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Northwestern's only road test before conference play comes at Baylor, and it will be a significant test. But the other highlights are limited to good-but-not-great teams, all of which come to Evanston. This isn't as bad as some of Northwestern's recent schedules, but it isn't among the toughest in the Big Ten.
Toughest: Marquette (Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C.), at Duke (Nov. 28), Kansas (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 17-18 in Uncasville, Conn.)
The rest: Alabany (Nov. 11), UMKC (Nov. 13), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 1), Long Beach State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 12), UNC Asheville (Dec. 15), Winthrop (Dec. 18), Chicago State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Marquette game will be on board an aircraft carrier, and you never know what'll happen on one of those things. Combine that with a trip to Duke in the Challenge (the Blue Devils will surely be looking for revenge for last season's smackdown in Columbus) and a home date with Kansas, and the end result is a pretty strong schedule, all things considered.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: vs. La Salle (Dec. 5 at the Palestra)
The rest: St. Francis-Penn. (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 23), Boston College (Nov. 28), Penn (Dec. 1), Army (Dec. 8), Delaware (Dec. 15), New Hampshire (Dec. 23), Duquesne (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I thought about going lower, but the Nittany Lions get a little toughness scale boost for a couple of reasons. For one, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off bracket has Tim Frazier and Co. taking on NC State in the first round. For another, this team is still very much in the throes of rebuilding, at a school where the athletics programs have faced (and are facing) some of the most dire times in NCAA history. A so-so schedule is forgiveable, I'd say.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 15-16 in New York), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
Next-toughest: at Clemson (Nov. 28), Xavier (Dec. 1)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 11), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 21), Lamar (Dec. 4), at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 8), Ball State (Dec. 18), William & Mary (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The 2K Sports Classic features a game vs. Villanova and either Alabama or Oregon State. And the neutral-court Crossroads Classic matchup with Notre Dame is going to be a tough one. But with Xavier being down for this return home-and-home trip, and Clemson rebuilding under Brad Brownell, the schedule doesn't have much of an edge to it. It's merely OK.
Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 14), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24), at Marquette (Dec. 8)
Next-toughest: Virginia (Nov. 28), Cal (Dec. 2)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 11), Cornell (Nov. 18), Presbyterian (Nov. 20), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Green Bay (Dec. 12), Milwaukee (Dec. 22), Samford (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Now this is a tough schedule. It features road trips to Florida and Marquette (plenty of Badgers fans will be in the building Dec. 8, but still), as well as the Las Vegas Invitational, which offers an opening-round game against Creighton and a possible matchup against Arkansas. Virginia and California are solid opponents, while Milwaukee and Green Bay are nothing to overlook. But the real strength of the slate comes in those road tests, which many of the Big Ten's top schedules can't boast.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson wanted a visor for his helmet. Brian Kelly gave him much more than that.
In naming Golson as Notre Dame's starting quarterback Thursday, the third-year Irish coach is showing a commitment to stabilizing the position once and for all, entrusting the car keys to the guy who ultimately can take the spread offense to the level everyone's been waiting to see since Kelly's arrival in 2010.
"You're starting DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown, two guys that are gonna play a lot for us on the perimeter that are first-time starters, and then George Atkinson didn't play very much at running back. You're gonna see a lot of him," Kelly said. "Troy Niklas. I could go on and on. So Everett Golson, there's four or five guys right there that are gonna be impactful in the games. So yeah, certainly there's gonna be some learning there. But one thing we don't have a lot of time on is that curve. We gotta come out running and doing our thing right away."
That starts with the redshirt freshman whose strong arm and nimble feet make him the ideal man behind this wheel. It's not like Notre Dame's offense is composed of all first- or second-year players, either: The Irish return seniors Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, in addition to the nation's best tight end, Tyler Eifert, and an offensive line that is as solid as they come.
Those weapons present a perfect opportunity to help break Golson in, as will the relatively tame defenses he is set to face in the season's first two weeks -- Navy on Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland, and Purdue the following Saturday in South Bend.
"I would say what makes me more comfortable back there is just my teammates," Golson said. "You talk about the veterans, you’ve got the O-line, you’ve got veteran wide receivers. Like I said, the quarterbacks out there just helping me. That’s made me more comfortable."
Mistakes will come because they always do, especially for first-year players. Golson, calm and collected in facing every badgering reporter's question so far, showed a glimpse of some of that child-like giddiness when describing how he found out he won the job.
Golson had wanted a visor for his helmet before Wednesday's practice, an item Kelly said he would get once he was officially named the starter. Golson rushed over to the Romano Family Locker Room before class Thursday, only to see the same old gap between his facemask and helmet.
"I came back in [after class] and it was just there," he said of the visor. "I was kind of happy about that."
If Golson lives up to his potential, those happy times will continue for Notre Dame.
Here you go, night owls (all kickoffs listed in ET):
Boise State at Michigan State, 8 p.m., ESPN
Indiana State at Indiana, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vanderbilt at Northwestern, 8 p.m., BTN
Notre Dame at Michigan State, 8 p.m., ABC
Utah State at Wisconsin, 8 p.m., BTN
Ball State at Indiana, 8 p.m., BTN
Syracuse at Minnesota, 8 p.m., BTN
Louisiana Tech at Illinois, 8 p.m., BTN
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 8 p.m., ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2
Nebraska at Ohio State, 8 p.m., ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2
Ohio State at Indiana, 8 p.m., BTN
Penn State at Iowa, 8 p.m., BTN
Ohio State at Penn State, 6 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2
Michigan at Nebraska, 8 p.m., ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2
- Every Big Ten team except Purdue will have at least one night game this season. The Boilermakers have to be a little disappointed after getting to a bowl game last year and bringing back a talented roster. Nebraska and Ohio State will each play three league games under the lights.
- If you were planning on going to a Halloween party on Oct. 27, better make sure you have access to a TV -- or TVs. Not only will the Ohio State-Penn State and Michigan-Nebraska games be on in prime time, that's also the same day Wisconsin and Michigan State meet up at Camp Randall Stadium. It's a little hard to believe that game, which is a rematch of two epic duels from last season, won't be in prime time. But the two chosen for night slots are also big and feature four enormous fan bases. Wisconsin-Michigan State likely will get the 3:30 p.m. ET time slot in what is shaping up to be the biggest day of the season in the Big Ten.
- Ohio State will play three of its four October games at night, including Nebraska's visit to the Horseshoe. It's no surprise, given the Buckeyes' following and the presence of Urban Meyer. Even without the ability to play in the postseason, the Buckeyes figure to be an attractive team for TV ratings purposes this year. The atmosphere in Columbus when Big Red comes to town should be absolutely electric.
- Speaking of Nebraska, three of the Huskers' biggest games of the season will all be in prime time. Bo Pelini's team will get a chance to atone for blowout losses to Wisconsin and Michigan under the lights at Memorial Stadium. That place got crazy for last year's huge comeback win against Ohio State at night and should be similarly fired up for the Badgers and Wolverines.
- Penn State will have back-to-back prime-time games, and neither will be easy. The Nittany Lions must travel to Kinnick Stadium, which is usually a great atmosphere at night. It's the third time in four years those two teams have played at night. Penn State will also play the following week after dark versus Ohio State, which should provide an advantage for the Nittany Lions. There was no night game at Beaver Stadium last year, which didn't sit too well with the Penn State faithful. They've got a perfect white-out opportunity with Meyer and the Buckeyes coming to State College.
- Adam and I had Michigan State No. 1 in our pre-spring power rankings and may very well keep the Spartans there through the summer. But Michigan State will not get any prime-time exposure during conference season. The night games against Boise State (on a Friday) and Notre Dame were no-brainers, and with both at home the Spartans will need good showings to impress the rest of the country.
- Northwestern had three straight night games last season but gets only one all season this year, in the academic bowl against Vanderbilt. Assuming both student bodies aren't studying, that could be a fun game.
- Wisconsin won't get the benefit of playing at Camp Randall at night this year, except against Utah State. And the Badgers didn't figure to need much help in that game.
- The night kickoff could also help Minnesota in an interesting nonconference game against Syracuse. The Gophers had only one night game a year ago and lost in embarrassing fashion to North Dakota State.
- Indiana gets three prime-time exposure opportunities, all of them at home. Perhaps that can improve the game-day environment in Bloomington, though Ohio State often has almost as many fans as the Hoosiers when it comes to Memorial Stadium.
- Michigan's first-ever night game last season against Notre Dame was a smashing success, but the Wolverines will not go under the lights again this year in the Big House, as had been reported. But they will get their share of high-profile prime-time matchups, having to play Notre Dame and Nebraska on the road at night. The opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, is also expected to be a night kickoff. The schedule offers few breaks for Brady Hoke's team in 2012.
- Overall, I think it's a very strong prime-time schedule. I count five weeks with at least one really appetizing matchup, with the potential for much more. I'm already planning on not sleeping the night of Oct. 27.
What are your thoughts on the prime-time schedule?
EVANSTON, Ill. -- January 28, 2012, could have gone down as a memorable day in Northwestern history.
On Saturday, Northwestern had the unique opportunity for its men’s basketball and football programs to fill the sports pages with their successes. Instead, it felt as if the two programs took steps in opposite directions, and it all happened within an hour and 17 minutes.
For the football program, it felt as if moved forward.
At 3:39 p.m., a release was sent out stating former USC wide receiver Kyle Prater had decided to transfer to Northwestern. Instantly, the future hopes for Northwestern football rose.
Northwestern has recruited players who have developed into NFL players. The Wildcats have alumni playing throughout the league. But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his predecessors have seldom recruited players who were considered future NFL players out of high school. Prater is the latter.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Prater has been labeled a future NFL wideout since starring at Proviso West High School in Hillside, Ill. As a senior, he was ranked the No. 10 receiver in the country and the No. 45 player overall by ESPN.
Prater’s college career has been a disappointment so far as he’s had to deal with an assortment of injuries during two years, one being a redshirt, at USC, but he and Northwestern are optimistic he can still be the type of game-changer at the college level he was expected to be coming out of high school.
The addition of Prater along with the upcoming signing of defensive end Ifeadi Odenigo, the No. 51st-ranked player in the Class of 2012 by ESPN, makes the future seem bright for Pat Fitzgerald’s program despite the 2011 season being one to forget.
While the football program was celebrating arguably its greatest recruiting triumph, the men’s basketball program was trying to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive against Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Wildcats coach Bill Carmody had said prior to the game he wasn’t positive if it was a must-win contest for his team, but it had that feeling to him.
Carmody better hope now that feeling was wrong.
At 4:56 p.m., Northwestern senior John Shurna’s game-winning 3-pointer attempt collided with the backboard and dropped to the court, giving Purdue a 58-56 win and diminishing the Wildcats’ chances at the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance a bit more than before his shot went up.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Northwestern among the first four teams outside the NCAA tournament on Jan. 23. The Wildcats can expect to be further out of Lunardi’s picture come Monday.
If Saturday’s Northwestern loss had been at Purdue, the Wildcats could have lived with it. But Northwestern couldn’t afford another home loss. Northwestern is now 2-2 at home in the conference and 2-6 overall in the Big Ten.
Northwestern has 10 conference games remaining. The math is it needs to 7-3 overall to at least go .500, meaning it has to steal two road games and win out at home.
Northwestern’s remaining home games are Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. Its road contests are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Penn State and Purdue on the road.
For anyone who has followed the Big Ten this season, there’s not an easy game out there. Northwestern will likely be favored at home against Nebraska and Iowa, but the Wildcats could very well be the underdog against everyone else.
Is it impossible for Northwestern still close out the Big Ten strong and get to the NCAA tournament? No. Is it improbable? Probably at this point.
Saturday had the makings of something unforgettable at Northwestern, but it was a day that left one program feeling good about its future and the other wishing it could have the day over again.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here’s a quick look at Purdue’s 58-56 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
How it happened: Purdue’s Robbie Hummel wasn’t especially great throughout Saturday’s game, but he came through with the game on the line. With the score tied at 56-56 and the game clock and shot clock winding down, Hummel drove the baseline and drained a leaning shot with eight seconds remaining for the win. Northwestern’s John Shurna attempted a game-winner at the buzzer, but his 3-pointer went off the glass and fell to the court.
What it means: Heading into Saturday, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said he felt like it was a must-win situation for his team. The Wildcats now have dropped two home conference games and are 2-6 in the Big Ten. Their time is running out to put together a NCAA tournament résumé. For Purdue, it improved to 5-4 in the Big Ten and remained in the conference mix with nearly everyone else.
Player of the game: Hummel came through in the clutch. He scored nine of his 11 points in the second half and had the game-winner.
Northwestern player of the game: Junior guard Drew Crawford kept the Wildcats in the game. He scored a game-high 23 points, which included four 3-pointers.
What’s next: Northwestern’s two-game homestand continues with Nebraska on Thursday. Purdue hosts Indiana on Feb. 4.
Before you ACC fans fire up the angry email machine, don't blame me for the naming convention. It's simply a matter of ritual. Every year, the Big Ten and ACC take turns sharing this two-day competition's first billing. Last year it was the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This year it's the Big Ten/ACC.
If yours truly had his druthers, the name would be determined by the winner of the previous year's contest. The ACC would have loved this for the first decade of the competition, when it went 10-0 and earned a truly daunting array of bragging rights over its Midwestern brethren. But the Big Ten has experienced a minor renaissance the past two seasons, winning both in 2009 and 2010 and closing the considerable gap, if only slightly, in the ACC's all-time Challenge lead.
Who takes the title home this season? All signs point to the Big Ten being the much stronger, deeper conference overall, but that hardly guarantees victory. As always, the Big Ten/ACC winner will be the league that gets wins in the most opportunistic ways -- usually with a batch of upsets mixed in.
Let's break down those matchups. And while we're at it, since you don't already have enough to send me angry emails about, I might as well throw in a few predictions, too. I eagerly await your "How could you pick Team X over Team Y YOU IDIOT?!?!" emails Wednesday morning. Should be fun. Not as much fun as the Big Ten/ACC Challenge itself, of course. But fun all the same.
Let's begin with Tuesday's games. For my predictions and analysis of each of the Wednesday games, click here.
Tuesday, Nov. 29
Michigan at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Virginia wins 65-63
Why: Don't get me wrong, that predicted score line is most definitely an upset. In fact, it would be the upset of the Challenge. But there are a few things to take into account here. One: Virginia's brutally slow pace tends to make its opponents play on its terms, and the Cavaliers could force the Wolverines into a grinding half-court game. Two: Michigan is coming off a rather long and arduous trip to the Maui Invitational, which not only involved flights to and from Maui but three tough games in three straight days. Three: It's always tougher to win on the road. Four: As in the NCAA tournament, there are always upsets in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. If Virginia is as improved as many preseason prognosticators have asserted, and if it can keep the air out of the ball, pressure Michigan guard Trey Burke at the point of attack, and prevent Tim Hardaway Jr. from finding a scoring groove, anything can happen. Which is not the most ringing endorsement, I know. But I had to pick an upset somewhere.
Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Northwestern wins 80-70
Why: Much like last season, opportunities to scout and gauge the ability of the Northwestern Wildcats prior to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge have been minimal. Northwestern has looked good, but we're not really sure how good. Wins over LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall in the Charleston Classic are nice, but they're hardly going to convince you of this team's ability to, say, make its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Georgia Tech may provide a slightly stiffer test, and not only because the game is on the road. Under first-year Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech has been brutally ugly on the offensive end but solid defensively, ranking No. 25 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks in large part to strong perimeter defending and rebounding. Still, Northwestern, with the ever-efficient John Shurna leading the way, should be able to overcome.
Illinois at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Illinois wins 65-56
Why: At this point in the season, Maryland is just holding on for dear life. That's what happens when you lose a center like Jordan Williams to the NBA and return in the fall to find your point guard (Pe'Shon Howard) and your would-be center (Alex Len) missing thanks to injury and suspension, respectively. Howard's absence has forced guard Nick Faust to take over point responsibilities, a role he told the Washington Post he hasn't played since he was 10 or 11, and Maryland's early results -- with two blowout losses to Alabama and Iona -- have made the difficult transition glaringly noticeable. Meanwhile, Illinois will get its first reasonably difficult game of the season. All six of the Illini's wins to date have been, as colleague Dick Vitale might say, Cupcake City. But the Illini do have talent here, in the form of veteran guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and vastly improved center Meyers Leonard, who will come into Tuesday night's game averaging 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.
Miami at Purdue, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Purdue wins 72-66
Why: Purdue has been almost entirely perimeter-oriented this season. Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith are this rebuilt team's best and most important offensive players. Even Hummel, who has the size to go down low, has spent most of his effective comeback season playing around the edges of the defense. When the Boilermakers have to face a live frontcourt -- or at least a team that works inside-out rather than outside-in -- they could really struggle. Miami is not that team. The Hurricanes were devastated by injuries to big men Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble in the offseason, and Jim Larranaga's team has had to get by on little more than the backcourt performance of guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. At home, with the insane folks in the Paint Crew on their side, Purdue should be the favorite
Clemson at Iowa, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Clemson wins 68-60
Why: If you look only at records -- which would be weird and a not-very-good way to analyze college basketball, but hey, to each his own! -- you might think Iowa and Clemson are on similar ground heading into this one. You would be wrong. Iowa's two losses -- a blowout to a good Creighton team on a neutral court and a 77-61 (!) home loss to none other than the Campbell Fighting Camels -- look very bad indeed. Clemson's two losses, on the other hand, came to reasonably solid mid-majors (Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston) and were the product of one-possession deficits. In the meantime, Clemson ended last week ranked No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings thanks in large part to a No. 18-ranked defense. Iowa ended last week ranked No. 109. Iowa's home court can be loud at its best and depressingly quiet at its worst, so as long as Clemson can overcome the Hawks' comfort with the fast-break style in Carver Hawkeye-Arena, Brad Brownell's team should be able to get the win.
Duke at Ohio State, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Ohio State wins 79-74
Why: On the ESPNU College Basketball podcast on Monday (sorry: shameless plug), our own Doug Gottlieb made a rather trenchant observation regarding Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger's matchup with the Duke frontcourt Tuesday night. He pointed out that Sullinger is best-defended by an athletic, strong big who can play behind him, forcing him to work for position on the offensive end, and who is tall enough to challenge Sullinger's moves around the rim. Mason Plumlee qualifies for this role. Likewise, Duke's offense presents some issues for Sullinger defensively, because the big fella -- for all his incredible strengths on the floor -- struggled at times last season to hedge ball screens and recover in time to seal around the rim. In case you haven't noticed, Duke runs a lot of ball screens. In other words, this might not be Sully's best game. Despite all that, the reason Ohio State wins is perimeter defense. Aaron Craft is as good an on-ball perimeter defender as there is in the country, and Thad Matta's team is loaded with players who can challenge shots and pressure the ball without committing fouls. Duke hasn't played a perimeter defense this capable yet; so many of the things that got them open looks in Maui will be challenged well by Craft & Co. In the meantime, Ohio State's offense -- which is still dynamic but with the added benefit of insane depth -- should put up enough points to hold Duke off in the end.
Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.
Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.
Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?
Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.
Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.
Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.
Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.
The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.
"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."
It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.
"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."
2. The Irish have done a solid job against the option: Notre Dame's defense put on a very impressive performance against the nation's third-ranked rushing team Saturday, holding Navy to 196 yards on the ground. To put that in perspective, the Midshipmen averaged 325.14 rushing yards per game entering Saturday. The defense's performance forced a pair of turnovers against an Air Force offense that chunked up plenty of yards but had little to show for it against the Irish's first-team. Notre Dame has come a long way from its eighth game of last year, a 35-17 loss to Navy that featured 367 rushing yards from the Midshipmen.
3. Floyd will get his: Games 7 and 8 looked an awful lot like Games 4 and 5, didn't they? At Pitt five weeks ago, Michael Floyd was held to four catches for 27 yards before tallying 12 catches for 137 yards a week later at Purdue. Last week Floyd had four catches for 28 yards, responding Saturday with a six-catch, 121-yard performance in which he scored a rushing and a receiving touchdown. Floyd can be held in check every now and then, but there is no key to stopping him on a consistent basis.
4. Jonas Gray is having himself quite the farewell tour: Seriously, Gray didn't have a single career touchdown before Week 4 at Pitt. He's scored in every game since, including three Saturday, giving him eight touchdowns for the season to tie Cierre Wood for the lead among Irish backs and receivers. Gray's 12-carry, 69-yard effort Saturday actually lowered his yards per carry average from 8.5 to 8, though the senior likely isn't complaining.
He doesn't talk about odds, either, though he admitted Tuesday that his sprained right ankle was improving.
"I'm not into doing probabilities, but I'm definitely better than I was yesterday and the day before yesterday," Johnson said after practice Tuesday. "So I'm just improving every day and just taking it a day at a time."
Brian Kelly said during his noon news conference Tuesday that Johnson would practice that afternoon for the first time since he injured his ankle in an Oct. 1 win at Purdue.
Johnson would not divulge practice details but his return, which remains up in the air, is now all the more important given the season-ending knee injury to fellow senior starting end Kapron Lewis-Moore.
"The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn't have to be playing right now," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "They're really not ready to play the amount of reps that they're having to play each week. So getting them ready for this type of offense definitely doesn't suit that -- assignment football, play after play, the discipline and the mental focus necessary to play four quarters against a team like this and be assignment correct on every play. So it becomes a challenge."
Lewis-Moore marks the third of three injuries to Notre Dame's season-opening starting defensive linemen, as he will miss the final five games and a potential bowl game.
Nose guard Sean Cwynar, who is now at full strenghth, missed Week 2 at Michigan with a broken hand. He was also held out against Air Force in Week 6 because of a broken right hand, which caused him to play with a club for a hand.
Johnson missed the majority of the past three games after being hurt on the first play at Purdue three weeks ago, and he tried to help freshmen ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt along the way while he was sidelined.
"You have to," Johnson said. "If I'm not out there, [if] I see someone do something that they shouldn't be doing, I'm gonna let them know; I'll let them know in a reasonable way. I mean, it's game day. You can't be trying to coach up everything; you got to let them play and not worry about too many other things because it's just game day. You're out there having fun."
Johnson's injury -- along with that of Cwynar's -- made Lynch and Tuitt have to grow up fast.
With Lewis-Moore now out for the season., the spotlight will be on the freshmen even more.
"Both of them are playing more than we really want them to play, and more than they're ready to play," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "So sometimes that can hurt their growth, it can stunt their growth. So that's kind of the process we're going through with Aaron and making sure you don't put too much on his plate right now but more than he's ready for."
We devoted Thursday to the West, with the Pac-12, WCC and Mountain West. Friday is all about the Midwest. We began with a look at the Missouri Valley and the Big 12 and finish up with the Big Ten ...
Toughest: Gonzaga (Dec. 3), vs. UNLV in Chicago (Dec. 17), vs. Missouri in St. Louis (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 22-23), at Maryland (Nov. 29)
The rest: Loyola-Chicago (Nov. 11), SIU Edwardsville (Nov. 14), Lipscomb (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 27), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 7), Coppin State (Dec. 11), Cornell (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- This is your standard Illinois schedule. The Illini have a couple of legitimate true road and home challenges, one against Gonzaga and the other in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at rebuilding Maryland, and the addition of two typical neutral-site games -- the Braggin' Rights rivalry game with Missouri in St. Louis and a quasi-home game against UNLV at the United Center -- mean the schedule isn't totally forgiving. The Cancun Challenge doesn't offer much -- Richmond is the toughest opponent in that tournament -- but even so, the Illini have a handful of chances to prove themselves in challenging situations.
Toughest: at NC State (Nov. 30), Kentucky (Dec. 10)
Next-toughest: Butler (Nov. 27), vs. Notre Dame in Indianapolis (Dec. 17)
The rest: Stony Brook (Nov. 11), Chattanooga (Nov. 13), at Evansville (Nov. 16), Savannah State (Nov. 19), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 21), Stetson (Dec. 4), Howard (Dec. 19), UMBC (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In recent seasons, as Indiana has struggled, so have its schedules. Few teams played as soft a nonconference slate as Tom Crean's last season. This season, the schedule improves slightly thanks to the return of two traditions: The Hoosier Invitational (featuring that Nov. 27 game vs. Butler) and the revived Crossroads Classic, a rotating four-team competition boasting IU, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler. There's also the traditional rivalry game with Kentucky, which Indiana is lucky enough to get at home. (Bold prediction: That crowd is going to be crazy.) After that, it's cupcake city. But the schedule has noticeably improved, and maybe that's in line with what Hoosiers fans will expect from their team's performance this year, too.
Toughest: Clemson (Nov. 29), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 6), at Iowa State (Dec. 9)
Next-toughest: vs. Creighton in Des Moines (Nov. 20)
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 11), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 14), Northern Illinois (Nov. 17), Campbell (Nov. 23), IPFW (Nov. 26), Brown (Dec. 3), Drake (Dec. 17), Central Arkansas (Dec. 19), Boise State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- The good news? Iowa won't have to spend much on airfare until the Big Ten season starts. The bad news? The price of air miles may not be worth the ridicule. If you look closely, you'll notice that Iowa's only nonconference games outside of Iowa City will be played ... in Iowa. That's not to say those games don't present some degree of difficulty -- Creighton is on the rise, Iowa State will have its best team in years and UNI is a very difficult place to play. But thanks to a home year in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the farthest trip the Hawks will make before Dec. 28 is a two-hour ride west on I-80. It's a half-step removed from playing every nonconference game at Carver-Hawkeye.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23), at Virginia (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Ferris State (Nov. 11), Towson (Nov. 14), Western Illinois (Nov. 17), vs. Oakland in Auburn Hills, Mich. (Dec. 10), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 13), Alabama A&M (Dec. 17), Bradley (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- A Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup with Virginia is intriguing, but this schedule is all about the Maui Invitational. Michigan tips off against Memphis, a talented team garnering top-15 buzz to begin the season. So it won't take much time to see how this Wolverines team will stack up without departed underclassman Darius Morris. If Michigan wins, it's likely to get a rematch of March's NCAA tournament game with Duke, a game that would make this schedule much more difficult by default. Even if that doesn't happen, the Maui field is so loaded that UM could lose out on the two obvious marquee matchups (Duke, Kansas) and still end up playing Tennessee and either UCLA or Georgetown. Now that's a consolation bracket.
Toughest: vs. North Carolina in San Diego (Nov. 11), vs. Duke in New York (Nov. 15), at Gonzaga (Dec. 10)
Next-toughest: Florida State (Nov. 30)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 20), Milwaukee (Nov. 23), at Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bowling Green (Dec. 17), UMKC (Dec. 19), Lehigh (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Tom Izzo's reputation for scheduling precedes him: He'll play anyone anywhere at any time, even if it might not be the best idea for his team's record. This season is no different. The Spartans open with a much-hyped game against North Carolina on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego. Short of scheduling the Chicago Bulls to a neutral-site game at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, that's taking "play anyone anywhere" to its furthest logical extreme. And if that weren't bad enough, four days later Michigan State travels all the way across the country to play Duke in Madison Square Garden. There is a bit of relief here in the form of seven home cupcakes, but a trip to Spokane and a home game against Florida State round out one of the most difficult and travel-heavy nonconference schedules you'll see this year.
Toughest: Virginia Tech (Nov. 30), USC (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: Fairfield (Nov. 17), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 24-27)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 11), South Dakota State (Nov. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 21), Appalachian State (Dec. 6), St. Peter's (Dec. 10), Central Michigan (Dec. 13), North Dakota State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The most noticeable aspect of Minnesota's schedule is its lack of true road games. The Gophers won't play in an opponent's home gym until the Big Ten schedule rolls around. Part of that is coincidence (it's Minnesota's turn to host a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game) and part of it is USC's willingness to come to the Twin Cities for a true road game. Either way, it means the Gophers have to do their "road" work in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic, a tournament they should by all rights aspire to win. There simply aren't that many quality teams in the Old Spice this season: If Minnesota keeps winning and seeds hold, the best three opponents they could face are DePaul, Indiana State and, oh, Dayton? Fairfield? Take your pick. Any way you break it down, the schedule's going to be soft.
Toughest: at USC (Nov. 14), at Creighton (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Oregon (Nov. 23)
The rest: South Dakota (Nov. 11), Rhode Island (Nov. 20), South Dakota State (Nov. 26), Wake Forest (Nov. 30), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 7), at TCU (Dec. 10), Alcorn State (Dec. 17), Central Michigan (Dec. 20)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I'll give some props (you know, as the kids say) to the Cornhuskers for being willing to schedule a true road game against a decent opponent. And give the Huskers credit for continuing their series with Creighton; the Bluejays have always had trouble convincing high-major teams to come to town. But other than those two games, this schedule is baby-bottom soft. Everything's at home. Every high-major opponent is beatable. Even the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game will be played in Lincoln against a Wake Forest team coming off an historically bad season. Last season, Doc Sadler's bad nonconference schedule put his team behind the NCAA tournament eight-ball even as the Huskers were making a worthwhile argument in Big 12 play. That may well happen again.
Toughest: Baylor (Dec. 4), at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 17-20), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 29)
The rest: Texas Pan-American (Nov. 13), Stony Brook (Nov. 25), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 2), Texas Southern (Dec. 15), Central Connecticut (Dec. 17), Eastern Illinois (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Now this is more like it, Wildcats. In recent years, one of the reasons -- among several -- that Northwestern has fallen short of the first NCAA tournament bid in school history is a distinct lack of quality nonconference opponents. That changes this season. The Charleston Classic isn't a loaded field by any means, but Northwestern could emerge with wins over LSU, Tulsa or Western Kentucky, and VCU, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech or St. Joseph's. The biggest eye-opener will come at Welsh-Ryan Arena, when -- and I admit I had to rub my eyes when I first saw this game on the schedule -- Baylor will come to town. The Wildcats' road game at Creighton is a tough one, too. This isn't a Michigan State-level slate, but it's far better than what Northwestern has played in the past few seasons. And that Baylor game should be fascinating.
Toughest: Florida (Nov. 15), Duke (Nov. 29), at Kansas (Dec. 10)
Next-toughest: at South Carolina (Dec. 17)
The rest: Wright State (Nov. 11), Jackson State (Nov. 18), North Florida (Nov. 21), VMI (Nov. 23), Valparaiso (Nov. 25), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 3), South Carolina-Upstate (Dec. 14), Lamar (Dec. 20), Miami (Ohio) (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Last year, when Jared Sullinger and company steamrolled Florida in Gainesville, we knew for certain Ohio State was a national title contender and force to be reckoned with. We won't need that revelation this time around. Still, OSU has three truly marquee nonconference battles on its docket. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, two -- Florida and Duke -- come at home. The other, a road trip to Lawrence, will pit Sullinger against fellow star big man Thomas Robinson. All three will be must-see TV. This schedule isn't deep, but boy, those games at the top are good.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 19-20)
Next-toughest: at Boston College (Nov. 30), Ole Miss (Dec. 4), at Duquesne (Dec. 10)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), Radford (Nov. 14), Long Island (Nov. 16), Youngstown State (Nov. 23), Lafayette (Dec. 7), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 18), Cornell (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- At first glance, it doesn't look like much, but that's before you realize the rebuilding Nittany Lions -- with their first-year head coach, Patrick Chambers, and distinct lack of former four-year star Talor Battle -- will face Kentucky in the first round of the Hall of Fame tournament at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena. That one could get ugly. Then it's either Old Dominion or South Florida on day two. A visit to rebuilding BC could just be ugly, period, while a short trip to play a better-than-you-think Duquesne team is tricky. This schedule could be tougher, sure. But for this team, this season, it might already be tougher than required.
Toughest: at Xavier (Dec. 3), vs. Butler in Indianapolis (Dec. 17)
Next-toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 17-20), Miami (Fla.) (Nov. 29)
The rest: Northern Illinois (Nov. 11), High Point (Nov. 14), Western Michigan (Nov. 23), Coppin State (Nov. 26), Western Carolina (Dec. 7), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 10)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The 2011 Puerto Rico Tip-Off is no 2011 Maui Invitational, but there are solid teams in the mix. Purdue will open with MAAC favorite Iona on Nov. 17, could play Temple in the second round and, if seeds hold, get a very solid mark against either top-25 Alabama or reigning NIT champ Wichita State. Then there's the trip to Xavier (brutal) and the meeting with Butler at the Crossroads Classic (only slightly less brutal).
Toughest: at North Carolina (Nov. 30), Marquette (Dec. 3), UNLV (Dec. 10)
Next-toughest: Chicago Invitational Challenge (Nov. 25-26)
The rest: Kennesaw State (Nov. 12), Colgate (Nov. 16), Wofford (Nov. 19), UMKC (Nov. 22), Green Bay (Dec. 7), at Milwaukee (Dec. 13), Savannah State (Dec. 15), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- When the Big Ten/ACC Challenge schedule was released, the biggest question was: Who gets to play North Carolina in Chapel Hill? That honor fell to the Badgers, and UW's nonconference schedule immediately went from "pretty tough" to "look out." The other big challenges come at home: Marquette will visit the Kohl Center in the heated in-state rivalry game, and Mountain West co-favorite UNLV will travel to Madison after hosting the Badgers last year. The Chicago Invitational Challenge isn't without its potential, ahem, challenges, particularly if Wisconsin meets BYU. But it's that North Carolina game that sticks out the most. It's going to be a good one.
"It was a pretty big impact on him," the defensive coordinator said, "and from that moment he's made a concerted effort to not only do everything that we're working on, but he actually takes a lot of extra time and focuses on his liabilities."
Whatever the liabilities that come with a 133-tackle campaign may be -- Diaco mentioned angling and changing speeds as two of them -- there has been less critiquing of Te'o's play through five games this season and more praise for the heart of a Fighting Irish defense that finds itself 26th in the nation in scoring and 31st in overall defense.
He had eight tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks Saturday at Purdue, prompting head coach Brian Kelly to say it may have just been Te'o's best game of the season.
"I don't really know, I thought it was an average game," Te'o said. "I'm always looking to get better. I thought it was an OK game that I had. It was definitely refreshing to get a sack and some tackles, but I'm more happy that we won and I'm more happy that I didn't miss so many tackles, that's what I'm happy about.
"So in that case, I say yeah, I had a pretty good game. But other than that I thought it was average, still trying to feel my way through. Not necessarily feel my way through, but just be a game-changer."
Missing tackles, he said, was the biggest thing he tried to eliminate entering this season. Whereas last year Te'o said he would try to knock out any ball carrier within eyesight, this year he has learned to take a better approach in the open field.
"I think it starts with his understanding of the game and how much film he watches and how much he anticipates what offenses are gonna do now," fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said. "There was some of that last year, but I think he's gotten even a better feel for it and putting in more time. I mean, he's always had the instincts and the physical ability at linebacker. That's never anything he's been lacking. So I think his extra time off the field watching the game and studying the game has really shown up."
Te'o ranks 23rd in the nation in total tackles (19th among linebackers) and he is 25th in solo tackles (15th among linebackers). Despite his desire to be a game-changer, he said he has not accepted his status as a nationally elite linebacker yet because he tries not to listen to anyone outside of his family or team.
He has had to come out of his shell more in the past two years as a leader of Notre Dame's defense, but it is a process he has gradually adapted to.
"I'm learning when to speak, when not to speak; when to act, when not to act," Te'o said. "And I think that's what a good leader does. He's not always hounding on his teammates, he's not always over there barking at his teammates. He finds the right times to chime in and he chooses the right times not to chime in, so now I'm feeling my way through and I'm getting better with it."
Kelly has seen that growth both on and off the field, and he wasted no time in pointing to the driving factor behind every step Te'o has taken.
"Here's a young man with an immense amount of pride, a pride in his own culture, his own beliefs and faith, his own family," Kelly said. "And he carries that same pride to what he does on the football field. So when people talk about the complete package, it's that he carries that same pride with him and everything that he does. And that's what he brings to our football program. And that's why there's never a day that he's not looking to be better. And I think it's the pride that drives that."
Team of the week: Wisconsin. The only real question about the Badgers after their first four games was how they would fare against better competition. Then they steamrolled Nebraska 48-17. Any more questions?
Biggest play: There were plenty to choose from in the Illinois-Northwestern game, but I'm going with one that might have been overlooked from early in Michigan State's 10-7 win against Ohio State. The Spartans botched the punt snap on their first possession, and Buckeyes defenders were bearing down on punter Mike Sadler deep in his own territory. Sadler somehow recovered, eluded the rush and got off a 37-yard punt. If disaster strikes there for Michigan State, Ohio State might have scored, gained confidence and changed the entire complexion of that game.
Best call: Maybe we should call this the most interesting calls, not necessarily the best. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges unveiled a new wrinkle against Minnesota, putting Devin Gardner in at quarterback with Denard Robinson and two other running backs also in the game. The Wolverines used it a handful of times, employing a double pitch and a double pass. They also used a halfback pass from Vincent Smith for a touchdown. Let's be honest: Michigan didn't need any trickery against Minnesota in a 58-0 blowout. But Borges has just given every other Big Ten defensive coordinator something else to worry about.
Big Men on Campus (Offense): Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. Jenkins broke a school record with 268 receiving yards plus three touchdowns on 12 catches in the Northwestern win. It was the fourth-best receiving day ever by a Big Ten wideout. Wilson led the Badgers to the win in the biggest game of the year so far in the Big Ten by completing 14-of-20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 32 yards and a score.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor. He made a career-high 14 tackles, one of them for a loss, and intercepted a pass in the second quarter of the Badgers' win. Nebraska entered the game averaging more than 42 points, but was held to just 17.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He drilled three field goal attempts (from 22, 27 and 33 yards) in a 16-10 win against Indiana. He also punted seven times for an average of 39 yards, placing three inside the 20-yard line.
Worst hangover: Purdue. While acknowledging the terrible Saturdays that Minnesota and Ohio State also suffered through, the Boilermakers legitimately thought they could beat Notre Dame. They had two weeks to get ready for a night game at home, making this a real circle-the-wagons type of game. After the Irish won 38-10, the Purdue bandwagon has three broken wheels and a flat tire.
Strangest moment: Let's go back to Purdue for this one. Early on in that game, the Boilers forced an Irish incompletion on third down from their own 10. But safety Albert Evans was called for a celebration penalty for high-fiving some fans in the end-zone stands. Notre Dame would cash in with its second touchdown. "They said I high-fived someone," Evans told reporters. "I was in the moment, so I couldn't tell you who I high-fived. The band was right there. I guess you can't high-five anyone." Can't blame Evans too much for his premature celebration, as it was one of the few times all night the Purdue defense got a stop.