Chicago Colleges: Trevor Siemian

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern fans could count on several things during the first seven years of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure: wildly entertaining, down-to-the-wire games; defenses that bent, sometimes broke but also made plays; bowl games (at least after the first two years); and standout quarterback play.

From 2007-12, the quarterback position undoubtedly was a strength for the Wildcats. C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter all were among the Big Ten's more productive and dynamic signal-callers. In 2012, Northwestern deftly managed a two-quarterback system with Colter and Trevor Siemian, winning 10 games and ending its 64-year bowl losing streak.

But the quarterback spot has backslid the past two seasons and, not surprisingly, so have the Wildcats following consecutive 5-7 campaigns. It's unfair to place most of the blame on the signal-callers, who dealt with injuries, drop-prone receivers and inconsistent lines. Yet, the Wildcats didn't have a quarterback ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 most efficient passers.

[+] EnlargeMatt Alviti
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsMatt Alviti is using his athleticism and leadership skills in Northwestern's quarterback battle this spring.
Northwestern must upgrade the most important position on the field in 2015. But first, it must find a quarterback. Spring practice has brought a wide-open competition between senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Midway through, no leader has emerged and the candidates are taking equal reps with different personnel groups, operating the base offense.

"I wish [the decision] could be right now, but it's not going to be that way," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We've got to go through this, just to see how they grow. We'll get them in some situational stuff as time goes on.

"They all have some good things they've done, some spurts they go through and then something [bad] will happen. It's more about how they respond to certain things."

Oliver's selling point is experience. He backed up Siemian and Colter the past two seasons and has 61 career pass attempts in 12 games. He's a big man (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) with a big arm, but has yet to prove himself in sustained game action.

Oliver started in place of the injured Siemian in the 2014 regular-season finale against Illinois, a game Northwestern needed to win to go bowling. Things didn't go well: Oliver committed five turnovers (three interceptions, two lost fumbles) in a 47-33 loss.

"It's not on a loop in my room over and over again, but I did watch it," Oliver said. "I will continue to watch it any time I'm feeling unsure of myself."

Wouldn't the Illinois tape make Oliver feel less sure?

"I don't want go look at my highlight tape from high school," Oliver said. "I'll go and see what I messed up on, what I did right and then use that for spring football to get better."

Oliver is the dues-paying fifth-year senior who has waited for this moment -- "I've put in my time here," he said -- but he still might not be the answer. Some expect it to be Alviti, who wears the same number as Persa (7) and boasts a similar build and skill set.

Listed at 6-foot, Alviti is the best athlete of the three and delivers escapability Northwestern typically requires of its quarterbacks but lacked last year with Siemian. Alviti also brings a strong personality to the huddle, which Northwestern might need after two lackluster seasons. A member of Northwestern's leadership council, Alviti thinks he can direct others despite his limited playing experience.

"We haven't had great leadership the last two years," Alviti said, echoing a statement he made last spring. "That all starts with our quarterbacks and guys who are leaders on offense. We need to demand more from the rest of the team. Whether it's yelling at a guy or just being able to talk to him, that all comes with building great relationships off the field."

Thorson, perhaps more than any candidate, looks like a Big Ten quarterback. He boasts good size at 6-4 and 210 pounds and has a strong arm, which he showed off at a recent practice with a perfectly placed deep ball to Miles Shuler. Thorson seems comfortable in the pocket but also has mobility, which McCall says is "huge" to push Northwestern's offense.

McCall said of Thorson and Alviti, "It'd be interesting to put them in a race."

Thorson comes from good gridiron stock. His father Chad played linebacker for the New York Giants. His brother Luke is a senior wide receiver at Division III Wheaton College, where Chad played. Another brother, Hunter, played tight end at Wheaton.

"Both were 6-7, so big targets," Clayton Thorson said of his brothers. "We would go out to the practice field a lot -- it was right across the street from us, actually -- and we'd go play there, go play with [former Hawaii and Ohio State quarterback] Taylor Graham. It was awesome."

The coaches are clamoring for clarity, but little has emerged between the patient senior, the spunky sophomore and the virtuoso freshman. Maybe it's not a bad thing.

As Northwestern tries to regain its footing both in wins and in quarterback play, it can't afford to get this decision wrong.

Position battles: Northwestern Wildcats

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
3:00
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The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Next in line: Northwestern.

1. Quarterback: The race to take the reins of the offense from Trevor Siemian may have actually started at the end of last season, and Northwestern got a glimpse at what Zack Oliver could offer as a starter. But expect all the options to open camp with a blank slate in what could be a three-man competition for the job, with Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all jockeying for the position. If the Wildcats are going to bounce back and be a factor in the West Division next season, identifying the right leader for the attack has to be at the top of the priority list.

2. Outside linebacker: The Wildcats are losing veterans at both outside positions at the second level and will need to replace Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Ariguzo led the team in tackles during his senior campaign, and his sidekick on the other side chipped in 58 tackles while intercepting two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering three more. Senior Drew Smith has experience already and should give the Wildcats a jump on filling one hole given his ability to line up on either side, but that still leaves a big pair of shoes to fill on the other side of Anthony Walker.

3. Center: Nobody at Northwestern ever took for granted the stability Brandon Vitabile provided in the middle of the offensive line, and it was certainly a luxury to be able to count on him for so long up front. Now the Wildcats will have to find somebody to replace everything he provided while anchoring that unit and starting every offensive play, and their appreciation for Vitabile might actually increase heading into spring practice without him. Backup Hayden Baker is gone as well, so one way or another Pat Fitzgerald is looking at some inexperience at such a crucial position.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 13

November, 25, 2014
11/25/14
8:00
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It's the penultimate version of the bowl projections, and we have some news at the top. Sorry, Buckeyes fans, we're not projecting the Scarlet and Gray to the College Football Playoff -- not yet, at least.

As we did for a portion of the season, we're projecting two Big Ten teams to New Year's Six bowls, as we now believe Michigan State will finish high enough for selection. The Spartans should get to 10-2 this weekend against Penn State, their only setbacks coming against playoff hopefuls Oregon and Ohio State. There's a possibility they would qualify for the Capital One Orange Bowl if they're ranked higher than the highest available SEC team. If so, the Big Ten would not have a team in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

This possibility would increase if Arkansas beats Missouri on Saturday, sending Georgia to the SEC championship game. Georgia is ahead of Michigan State in the College Football Playoff rankings, but a loss, either this week against Georgia Tech or in the SEC title game, likely would drop the Bulldogs behind Michigan State.

For now, we're keeping Michigan State out of the Orange and sending Wisconsin to the Citrus.

The Buckeyes still need some help to reach the playoff. Charlie Strong, a former Urban Meyer aide, can help his old boss Thursday when his Texas squad hosts TCU.

There are also some moves at the bottom of the projections. Michigan's loss to Maryland takes the Wolverines out of the postseason picture, as none of us expects them to win The Game at The Shoe.

The Big Ten has nine bowl-eligible teams, and there will be a 10th as Northwestern and Illinois, both 5-6, play Saturday at Ryan Field. Although the Wildcats will be without starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, we project them to win and reach the six-win threshold.

Nebraska's slide on the field means a slide in the projections, as we now have the Huskers headed to the Music City Bowl. Minnesota moves up to the Outback after its big win in Lincoln, and Maryland bumps up to the Foster Farms Bowl in the Bay Area as it positions itself for a somewhat surprising 8-4 season.

Both Penn State and Rutgers are limping toward the finish and likely will finish the regular season at 6-6. The Lions seem like a good bet to reach New York City for their postseason return, while Rutgers could be headed to Motown.

Enough jabbering. Here are the latest projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Goodyear Cotton/VIZIO Fiesta: Ohio State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Goodyear Cotton/VIZIO Fiesta: Michigan State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Wisconsin
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Nebraska
Foster Farms: Maryland
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Rutgers
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His hair was a little thinner. The outside temperature was a lot lower. He was the one reining in his exuberant players this time around, not the one whom, he would say later Saturday, did not "have a clue" what was going on 19 years ago.

And yet after Northwestern pulled off another South Bend shocker, this one a 43-40 overtime victory that extended Notre Dame's late-season misery while resuscitating its own campaign, Pat Fitzgerald had a confession to make.

"I think it's much more enjoyable today," the ninth-year Wildcats coach said.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats pulled off another big win over the Irish on Saturday.
 He had entered the postgame press conference later than normal, the rare visiting coach who got to speak last in this building. Fitzgerald and Northwestern had waited 19 years for another shot at Notre Dame, its like-minded rival some 100 miles east. They came here in 1995 to open the season -- sun-baked, four-touchdown underdogs who would go on to do the unthinkable, recording the first of many upsets en route to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl trip.

No trophies or bowl games were clinched this time around, but a 4-6 team now finds itself in position to extend its season to a bowl game after pulling off the improbable here once again.

"[I] talked to them on Tuesday about a playoff mentality going back to high school: You get to November, the weather gets nasty, and that's when champions are crowned," Fitzgerald said. "We're not going to win a Big Ten championship, we understand that. We can still achieve our goals, but we have to have our back against the wall, playoff-type mentality and win and advance. We've advanced to another week to keep this team alive for postseason play."

Northwestern football, he said, is in a totally different place now than it was the last time these Cats took the field here. All-Americans like himself -- All-Americans who grew up on Chicago's South Side bleeding blue and gold, yet somehow ended up in Evanston -- undertook a massive culture change, one that led to three Big Ten titles, and one that now sheds the weight of a season that had been cast in a negative light.

Fitzgerald can thank himself for that, too, as the man just a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday can get Northwestern to its sixth bowl game in its past seven seasons with just two more wins, over Purdue and Illinois.

Those might look like child's play compared to what his players pulled off here on the third Saturday of November, sizing up an Irish team just a week removed from the College Football Playoff picture and delivering it another gut punch.

There was a blocked extra-point try on Notre Dame's second touchdown, which Nick VanHoose returned all the way and made what should have been a 14-7 game a 13-9 one.

There was the fallout of those Irish special-teams miscues: Coach Brian Kelly's questionable decision to go for two after the Irish's final touchdown, an incomplete pass that kept it a 40-29 Irish lead instead of putting Northwestern in a position where it would have to score two touchdowns.

Then, of course, there was the fumble -- the fourth, final and most costly Irish turnover, this from sure-handed captain Cam McDaniel, which gave Northwestern the ball back with a three-point deficit and 1 minute, 28 seconds to work with.

"They're giving us a shot, guys," Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said in the huddle. "Just let it rip."

Jack Mitchell's 45-yard field goal sent the game to overtime. His 41-yard kick -- which came after another Irish special-teams miscue, a missed 42-yard try in overtime -- set off a party nearly two decades in the making for the large contingent dressed in purple.

Said running back Justin Jackson, who could not bear to watch the game-winning kick: "First of all, that fumble was unbelievable, how we got that ball back. And then the drive, the field goal, and then for them to miss the field goal and for us to make a field goal -- it's a storybook ending to a crazy game. So it was really fun."

Fun for cornerback Matthew Harris, who was on the ledge of the stands celebrating with traveling fans long after the team had sung the alma mater. Fun for those traveling fans -- one of whom waved a purple T-shirt bearing a Chicago Sun-Times cover from 1995 that read: NU 17, ND 15. And fun for the man who had 11 tackles in that '95 meeting and sold this group on the belief that lightning could strike twice.

Fitzgerald held Siemian in a long embrace after the game. He made references to iPhones and Instagrams, luxuries and pitfalls of today's youth that will grant his players more attention than he ever received. He mentioned conversations with Ara Parseghian, the legendary former Northwestern and Notre Dame coach with whom he speaks regularly. He said boardrooms across Fortune 500 companies will feature more purple than usual Monday, as proud alumni revel in another victory at Notre Dame.

Nineteen years later, and here Fitzgerald was in a familiar position, at home once again after winning over a few more non-believers.

"I wouldn't want to play for anybody else in the country," Siemian said. "He's awesome. That's it. I just wouldn't want to play for anybody else."

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
8:00
AM CT
Recognizing the brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett: The redshirt freshman didn't just play well against the No. 5 defense in the nation; he absolutely dominated. Barrett threw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That alone probably would've earned him a helmet sticker -- but he also added another 86 yards and another two scores on the ground. He led Ohio State to touchdowns on six straight drives and scored four TDs in just the first half, as the Buckeyes posted the surprising 49-37 victory over Michigan State. Barrett played big on the Buckeyes' biggest stage yet this season; this honor was a no-brainer.
  • Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams: When Williams inevitably wins the Big Ten tight end of the year award, how many of his highlights are actually going to come from this game: His first TD? His second? His third? Or about that toe-dragging 25-yard reception? On a day in which the Gophers finished with 51 points in a 51-14 win, the most they’ve scored in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale since 1949, Williams was the star. He finished with five catches for 46 yards and three touchdowns. All of his scores came on second downs, and he made it all look easy for the Gophers.
  • Michigan defensive end Frank Clark: Good numbers, clutch play, holding the other team to minus-9 rushing yards – that’s a pretty good route to a helmet sticker. Clark finished with seven tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and two stops in the backfield during Michigan's 10-9 victory at Northwestern. He was closing in on Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian when Siemian slipped on the potential game-winning two-point conversion. Clark helped ensure the U-M victory and, while linebacker Jake Ryan also turned in a solid performance, Clark’s nose for the ball on the Northwestern’s final play gives him an edge.
  • Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon: Another week, another helmet sticker for MGIII. You can’t really be surprised at this point because the Heisman hopeful tends to dominate every week. In a 34-16 victory over Purdue, he ended up with 25 carries, 205 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also added a highlight or two receiving with three catches for 44 yards and another score. His two touchdowns came when the Badgers needed them most, the first to take the lead and the second to make it a double-digit game. He’s quick, he’s explosive, and his helmet might be running out of room with all these Big Ten helmet stickers.
  • Penn State defense: Indiana never once entered the red zone during Penn State's 13-7 victory, but it’s not fair to single out just one Nittany Lion defender here because, quite frankly, no individual stuck out. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman paced the unit with seven tackles apiece, but five other players had six tackles. And eight players had at least one stop in the backfield, with no one finishing with more than two. It was a total team effort. And it was the first time all season Indiana tailback Tevin Coleman didn’t reach the 100-yard mark. It was an impressive performance all-around. PSU’s defense finished with 10 stops in the backfield and two interceptions.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
12:20
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Lessons learned after Week 11 in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsA clutch performance by J.T. Barrett on Saturday night helped keep Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
1. Ohio State is king of the East and one of the B1G's two best bets for the playoff: Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said he felt as if the College Football Playoff started Saturday. He was kind of right, but the Spartans are out, and the Buckeyes are in ... the playoff picture. Few people saw the Buckeyes' dominating 49-37 win over Michigan State coming, and that's exactly what they needed to make a statement in this playoff race. J.T. Barrett outplayed Connor Cook, Ohio State scored touchdowns on six straight drives, and there was no sad pizza eating for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Margin of victory can only help the Buckeyes, and they'll need to keep playing like this to show they deserve one of the playoff's four spots. Only two Big Ten teams, one-loss Ohio State and Nebraska, are in contention for the playoff now, and they could face each other in the Big Ten title game. Of course ...

2. ... The Wild West still remains wild: Just when you think you’ve started to figure out the West Division, with Minnesota coming off a puzzling loss to Illinois and Iowa blowing out Northwestern, Jerry Kill’s squad steps up and absolutely dominates the Hawkeyes in a 51-14 thrashing that was over by halftime. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all boast just one Big Ten loss now -- so anything can happen in these last three weeks, especially when you consider these three teams will all play one another, with Nebraska taking on Wisconsin next Saturday. (Even Iowa, which still plays Wisconsin and Nebraska, isn’t technically out of the equation.) It’s looking more and more as if we’ll have to wait until the final week of the regular season to get a clear picture of who will move forward. Lessons learned: It was way too premature to write off Minnesota (and Kill’s dancing skills), and it’s still too early to pick a clear favorite.

3. Wisconsin passing game has some potential: Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy appeared doomed early this season, but they might end up just fine if Stave can build off part of Saturday’s performance. The Badgers set a season high with 30 pass attempts, and Stave finished 19-of-29 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His QBR of 77.2 was the highest of any Wisconsin starter in the Big Ten season, and he was especially hot in the second quarter of the 34-16 win. This was about as balanced as Wisconsin’s offense has been all season, and if defenses are forced to take some of the focus away from the running game, the Badgers’ offense could become even more dangerous. One game doesn’t make a trend, but it does show Stave is capable of more this season.

4. Several B1G offenses are regressing: If you watched -- and stayed awake through -- Penn State's 13-7 win over Indiana and Michigan's 10-9 win over Northwestern, feel free to pat yourself on the back. Those four teams combined for three offensive touchdowns, 39 points, 33 punts and 10 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. For Indiana, it’s more understandable because Nate Sudfeld's injury forced this team to become even more one-dimensional. But for the other three, every week seems to lead to fewer answers and more questions. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Devin Gardner and the Wolverines, Trevor Siemian remains incredibly inconsistent … and Penn State? Well, nothing seems to be going well there. Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern are ranked outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Hoosiers have averaged 11.3 points per game with Zander Diamont as the starting quarterback. These offenses aren’t showing much progress.

5. Penn State bowl hopes pinned to the defense: As bad as the Nittany Lions’ offense has been, the defense has performed nearly perfectly. Indiana never reached the red zone Saturday, Tevin Coleman didn’t reach 100 rushing yards for the first time all season, and the Lions’ defense didn’t allow a single point. (IU’s only touchdown came on an interception return for a TD.) PSU needs just one more win for bowl eligibility, but even with Illinois and Temple left on the slate, that’s no guarantee. The offense hasn’t once reached 20 points in regulation in a Big Ten game, but on the flip side, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation in six B1G games. This is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten, but it’s also arguably the worst offense.

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
10:00
AM CT
Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape. Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern): Noon 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.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR. 3:30 p.m. 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. 7 p.m. 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. Required reading

Big Ten morning links

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
7:00
AM CT
The past two months brought bad news piled on top of bad news for Big Ten quarterbacks -- from Braxton Miller's season-ending right-shoulder injury in August to Wes Lunt's fractured left leg last week.

In between, Michigan's Shane Morris found himself embroiled in a head-injury controversy that dominated headlines; Joel Stave of Wisconsin got the yips, and Minnesota won a game while completing one pass for 7 yards.

Since early August, eight of 14 Big Ten teams have endured a prolonged change -- temporary or permanent -- at quarterback, because of injury or poor play. Only Nate Sudfeld, Gary Nova, Trevor Siemian, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and Tommy Armstrong Jr. have avoided time on the bench.

The schedule for Week 7 looks a little, well, weak. So in lieu of dissecting these five games, here's a rundown of the three most unsettled QB situations -- in order of messiness -- among teams set to play on Saturday:

3. Iowa: Junior Jake Rudock is back and set to start against Indiana after missing the Hawkeyes' Sept. 27 win at Purdue with a leg injury. But sophomore C.J. Beathard will also play. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said last week he would rotate the quarterbacks, deciding by “feel." That's a recipe for disaster. Iowa needs a quarterback. One quarterback. Problem is, the Rudock-led offense has been mundane, while the long-locked Beathard offers a big-play threat but consistency problems.

2. Illinois: Without Lunt for four to six weeks, the Illini look to senior Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey. Or perhaps both. O'Toole started in place of Lunt against Nebraska and played in relief last week, completing 26 of 52 passes for 379 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions while being sacked five times. Bailey has not played this year after getting into nine games as a true freshman last year. To redshirt or not to redshirt, that is the question on Bailey. At this point, hopes for a winning season in Champaign are growing dim. Is it really worth using Bailey if he's not the clear-cut starter?

1. Wisconsin: Well, this is quite an ordeal after the junior Stave came off the bench last week at Northwestern for his first action of the season and tossed three interceptions, compiling a lowly 18.5 QBR index on 19 throws. Senior Tanner McEvoy has yet to settle into a groove, though, committing nine turnovers in 4 games. Both are set to play against Illinois. Stave looks to give the Badgers a better shot in November if he can make strides this month. Compounding matters, McEvoy may also play receiver -- not what Wisconsin needs, more confusion.

With that, let's go around the league:

East Division
  • Taiwan Jones and the Michigan State linebackers respond to the doubters.
  • Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand sees improvement among his players.
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke says he's a "ton of positives" have come as a result of his team's recent struggles.
  • What kind of grade does the Ohio State offense deserve?
  • Indiana running back Tevin Coleman, born to Liberian emigrants, has been overcoming obstacles since birth.
  • Rutgers' president speaks out on the football team's success in a presentation to the university's leadership.
  • Numbers to know from the first half of the season at Maryland.
West Division
  • Injured linebacker Sean Robinson may consider playing with a torn ACL for Purdue.
  • Nebraska's offensive game plan was not the problem against Michigan State, coach Bo Pelini said.
  • Why are Minnesota and Northwestern vying for a spot atop the division? They both capitalize on turnovers.
  • Punter Chris Gradone is Northwestern's secret weapon.
  • Reasons exist to believe in Iowa, writes Marc Morehouse, and there are reasons not to believe.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
8/30/14
8:00
AM CT
Take a deep breath, Big Ten fans. The wait is over. Our first weekend of Big Ten football is finally here. And though we might be lacking in quality this weekend, at least there's quantity.

8:30 a.m. ET

Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.

Noon ET

Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.

Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.

Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.

Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.

No. 5
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network:
Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.

12:05 ET

Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.

3:30 ET

James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.

Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.

Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.

9 ET

No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.

Weather

It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.

Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.

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LSU-Wisconsin primer

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B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

A B1G youth movement at receiver

Loaded backfields make it B1G's Year of the RB

Twitter: PSU sights & scenes from Ireland

Big Ten morning links

August, 25, 2014
8/25/14
7:00
AM CT
Game week is here. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:

1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.

The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.

2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.

4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.

"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."

East Division
West Division
Notable

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
10:30
AM CT
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Venric Mark, Sr., 5-8, 175; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Christian Jones, Sr., 6-3, 225; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.

Best case/Worst case: Northwestern

August, 11, 2014
8/11/14
8:30
AM CT
Football practice is in full swing, and we're just three weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way, shape or form. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Up next: Northwestern.

Best case

The choice in wording allowed for an easy joke, but it was Pat Fitzgerald who was the one smiling and laughing as the regular season came to a close.

Northwestern had proven without a doubt that it was one of the most unified -- not unionized -- teams in the country, turning a bond fortified through all the attention inside and outside of the program into a motivator that pushed it all the way to a division title.

Claiming that West crown wasn’t easy, of course, as seasons rarely are for the Wildcats. They started showing their upside early by cruising through three nonconference games at home, surviving Venric Mark's suspension with ease. But they hadn’t made many true believers until going on the road and showing off what the revamped, versatile offense could really do with Trevor Siemian at quarterback as the Wildcats overpowered Penn State to serve notice to the Big Ten.

That momentum continued into October as Northwestern answered a question about its defense, unleashing a unit that clearly enjoyed playing at full strength as it slowed down Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon enough in a 31-20 win to take over the inside track in the West.

There was a hiccup at Iowa that tightened up the race, and a rare November game outside the league didn’t go Northwestern’s way either as it came up short against resurgent Notre Dame on the road. But the Wildcats bounced back quickly and trounced Purdue and Illinois to clinch the division and cap their turnaround with a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Michigan State’s vaunted defense may have held Northwestern in check and kept the Wildcats from adding the most coveted trophy in the league, but Fitzgerald was smiling again before the season was finally over after a Capital One bowl victory for a team that was once again famous just for what it did on the field.

Worst case

The issue was supposed to all be in the past, but there simply was no escape for Northwestern. And while they might not have ended up unionized when the final ruling came out, the entire team clearly wasn’t on the same page off the field -- and it showed up on it.

With a handful of players vocally expressing opinions that didn’t match up with the final verdict, dissension within the ranks took its toll on a distracted roster that entered the season expecting to contend in the West Division but instead found itself reeling and out of the race by the middle of October.

After opening the season with three comfortable wins against overmatched opponents, the lack of focus was plain to see in a disastrous road trip to Penn State that included too many penalties, a handful of turnovers and a defense that didn’t put up much of a fight in the front seven.

The issues on defense continued all month long against teams that had no problem running the football even against stout units, let alone one looking so similar to the Northwestern team that finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense a year ago. The Wildcats are relentlessly mocked with strike signs, and the defense often looks like it would prefer to stand in a picket line than take on the league's best tailbacks.

Wisconsin and Melvin Gordon racked up yardage at will in a decisive victory in Evanston. David Cobb did the same as Minnesota won at home, and Ameer Abdullah put the nail in Northwestern’s coffin in the West Division as Nebraska cancelled all the parties on homecoming.

There would be a couple bright spots with Fitzgerald rallying the troops for a November surge, knocking off Michigan to keep bowl eligibility within reach. And the Wildcats would get there despite falling at Notre Dame, edging Purdue and Illinois to cap a trying regular season on a high note.

But the union questions and the distractions kept popping up throughout preparations for the Detroit Lions Bowl, sending the Wildcats into the offseason with one more loss and without any satisfying answers.

Ten storylines for Big Ten media days

July, 24, 2014
7/24/14
10:00
AM CT
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

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

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
7/22/14
5:00
PM CT
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

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

 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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