Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:00
PM ET
Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
12:00
PM ET
Proof there is a God.
Big Ten media days are less than a week away. Can you feel the excitement? You know enough about the coaches in attendance, but it's time to take a closer look at the players coming to Chicago.

Here's the full list, but we'll begin with the East Division, followed by the West later on.

INDIANA

David Cooper, LB, senior: A two-year starter at linebacker -- one at middle, one on the weak side -- Cooper led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles last season and added a fumble recovery. If the defense finally turns the corner, he'll likely play a significant role.

Nate Sudfeld, QB, junior: Tre Roberson's transfer makes Sudfeld the clear-cut starter entering the season. The junior from California started eight games last season and passed for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Shane Wynn, WR, senior: Like Sudfeld, Wynn moves into a more featured role as Indiana loses standout Cody Latimer and others. Wynn has 114 receptions for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons.

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, QB, senior: The sixth-year player enters his second full year as the starter after becoming the first Maryland player to eclipse 2,000 pass yards and 500 rush yards in a season. His father, Clark, played quarterback at Michigan State.

Stefon Diggs, WR, junior: Diggs might be the Big Ten's best and most explosive wide receiver as he returns from a broken leg that shortened his 2013 season. The one-time Ohio State recruiting target finished eighth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2012.

Jeremiah Johnson, CB, senior: He led Maryland in pass breakups (8) and had five tackles for loss while starting every game in 2012. Johnson missed most of last season with a fractured toe.

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, DE, senior: The Wolverines' most experienced defensive linemen needs to take his game to an elite level in his final season. Clark enters his second full year as a starter after recording 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.

Devin Gardner, QB, senior: He has had a truly unique career, which began as a wide receiver and will culminate as the starting quarterback for the second straight year, provided he holds off Shane Morris in camp. Gardner, fully healed from a foot injury, had 2,960 pass yards and 483 rush yards as a junior.

Jake Ryan, LB, senior: Ryan made an incredible recovery from an ACL tear to start five games last season, but he's hoping to regain the form he displayed in 2012, when he led Michigan in tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (4). If healthy, he could contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, DE, junior: He comes off of a breakout season in 2013, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year. Calhoun tied for second nationally with four fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Connor Cook, QB, junior: No player represented Michigan State's championship run more than Cook, who blossomed in Big Ten play after being named the permanent starter. He finished with 2,755 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Kurtis Drummond, S, senior: Although Drummond has made 21 consecutive starts at safety, he takes on a bigger role for the "No Fly Zone" secondary after the losses of Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The veteran earned All-Big Ten honors.

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, DT, senior: Ohio State's defensive line might be the league's best position group and Bennett, a preseason All-American, is a big reason why. After recording seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013, Bennett is pegged as a possible first-round draft pick and will be in the mix for national awards.

Jeff Heuerman, TE, senior: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuerman provides a big target in the passing game and should claim a bigger role in the offense this season after recording 26 receptions and four touchdowns in 2013.

Braxton Miller, QB, senior: He's the biggest name at Big Ten media days -- the league's reining offensive player of the year in both 2012 and 2013. Miller already has won more Big Ten awards (seven) than any player in league history, but he still lacks a Big Ten championship.

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, RB, senior: Belton has shared carries at running back the past two seasons but appears ready for a bigger role after a solid first spring under the new coaching staff. Although fellow backs Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also return, Belton's playmaking ability stands out, as he averaged 94.2 all-purpose yards per game in 2013.

Sam Ficken, PK, senior: The most interesting kicker in the Big Ten is the only specialist on this year's list in invitees. Ficken has been through it all at Penn State, from a disastrous day at Virginia in 2012 to a record-setting streak of 15 made field goals to some inconsistency late last season. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects a big finish from him.

Mike Hull, LB, senior: He's the quarterback of a defense that should improve under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Hull is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and could blossom after finishing second on the squad with 78 tackles in 2013.

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, FB, senior: A fullback at media days is quite Big Ten of Rutgers, and the hardworking Burton embodies the position he plays. The former walk-on has emerged as a major team leader after starting games in each of the past three seasons.

Darius Hamilton, DL, junior: The 260-pound Hamilton plays both line spots and holds his own despite being somewhat undersized. He finished the 2013 season on a good note, recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the final four contests.

Lorenzo Waters, S, senior: Waters enters his third season as a starter and will lead a secondary looking for better results from 2013. He has 130 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in the past two seasons.

Michigan gives 'recruit' first-rate day

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
6:46
PM ET
video
Growing up in a family of Michigan football fans in Grain Valley, Missouri, Stephen Loszewski had a wish that he would someday play football for the Wolverines.

His leukemia diagnosis in the spring of 2011, during Stephen's freshman year of high school, did more than put his wish on hold -- it changed his reality overnight.

Leukemia took away high school football and the normal social life of a teenager and replaced it with chemotherapy, nausea and the social isolation of hospital rooms (though his friends and teammates stayed close). He has been in remission since his sophomore year, but even though he was able to stay in the game he loves by helping his father coach youth football, a return to the playing field was ruled out.

So when it came time for Stephen, now 18, to choose his wish, he sought the chance to be treated like the Michigan football recruit he could never otherwise be.

"Instead of just asking, 'Hey, could I get some really good tickets to a Michigan game,' I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that I had," Stephen said. "I figured maybe I could get them to pretend to recruit me somehow."

What Michigan gave him was more than he had asked for. Way more.

For the full story from Greg Sukiennik, click here.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM ET
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.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
12:00
PM ET
Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseasons. We start with the teams in the East Division, with the West Division teams coming a little later.

Indiana Hoosiers tackle a hamburger eating contest White T-shirt dinner in Maryland Youth campers too much for Michigan State Spartans players Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke serves up breakfast Ohio State Buckeyes go paint-balling Penn State Nittany Lions set a "Lift for Life" record Rutgers' Scarlet Knight beefing up  

Michigan gives 'recruit' first-rate day

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
10:49
PM ET
video

Growing up in a family of Michigan football fans in Grain Valley, Missouri, Stephen Loszewski had a wish that he would someday play football for the Wolverines.

His leukemia diagnosis in the spring of 2011, during Stephen's freshman year of high school, did more than put his wish on hold -- it changed his reality overnight.

Leukemia took away high school football and the normal social life of a teenager and replaced it with chemotherapy, nausea and the social isolation of hospital rooms (though his friends and teammates stayed close). He has been in remission since his sophomore year, but even though he was able to stay in the game he loves by helping his father coach youth football, a return to the playing field was ruled out.

So when it came time for Stephen, now 18, to choose his wish, he sought the chance to be treated like the Michigan football recruit he could never otherwise be.

"Instead of just asking, 'Hey, could I get some really good tickets to a Michigan game,' I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that I had," Stephen said. "I figured maybe I could get them to pretend to recruit me somehow."

What Michigan gave him was more than he had asked for. Way more.

Stephen was tired and not feeling like answering questions from what he thought was a local TV news crew in the family living room. But he started to suspect something was up when his mother handed him a letter from Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

"Shortly after that, someone knocked at my door saying they were looking for me. That's when the dots really started to come together," Stephen said. "It turned out to be Jake Long -- one of my all-time idols as a Michigan player -- and he was at my house with letters from every single one of the Michigan coaches."


(Read full post)


Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
5:00
PM ET
The season of media days is in full swing, with the SEC in the books, the ACC wrapping on Monday, the Big 12 underway, and the Pac-12 set to start on Wednesday. The Big Ten, of course, is scheduled for next week in Chicago. It's never too early to answer questions, though. Keep them coming here and to me. I'll be back soon for more.


Mitch Sherman: I like what I've seen so far from James Franklin, but he's yet to coach a game in Happy Valley. It's all about attitude and recruiting, and that's great. Still, the hardships of probation are difficult to shake. And even with the reduction in sanctions, Penn State still faces a climb to return to the top tier of the Big Ten, let alone the national elite. The presence of Christian Hackenberg during this era of transition helps mightily, but I think the Nittany Lions face some difficult times before the resurgence can start.

As for Michigan, yeah, sure, the depth is better. With Brady Hoke in his fourth season, that's expected. Hoke has largely recruited well. The problems involve player development and a lack of offensive innovation since Denard Robinson stopped improvising. The Wolverines remain way too green on the offensive line, and questions at quarterback have not been answered. Other than three tough road trips, the schedule sets up well. But yes, if this year looks like the second half of last season, the coach has reason to worry.

 





Mitch Sherman: I don't, but any time after that, I could see it. Ultimately, as we all know, money drives the playoff, like everything in big-time college athletics. And the more money the new postseason generates, the louder the calls will grow to expand the thing and create more opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise.

Five years is about the right amount of time to test the four-team format. To change it before 2019 would not give this system the time it needs. We learned long before the BCS era that every season brings a new set of potential controversies. In some seasons, like 2013, a two-team playoff provided a better solution than would a four-team system. More often, the four-team approach would have been more effective in crowing a champ.

The momentum for an eight-team playoff will grow with the every season that provides controversy in the selection of four teams. Expect the calls for a revision to get loud in at least two of the first five seasons. After that, the system is ripe for expansion.

 





Mitch Sherman: Well, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a sophomore, so at worst, you need only fear three years of inconsistent play, but I understand the concern. You're suffering from a condition that resulted from watching Nebraska over the past four years. Its quarterback play under Taylor Martinez was anything but consistent, and Armstrong, as an eight-game starter, extended the trend, throwing eight interceptions and nine touchdowns on 52-percent passing.

I think you'll be pleased, though, with Armstrong's improvement this fall. My takeaway from the spring is that he's set to play much more consistently. Armstrong possesses all the intangibles for which the Huskers search at quarterback. The same could not always be said about his predecessor.

As for Johnny Stanton, he has to beat out Ryker Fyfe before the redshirt freshman can think about taking over the top spot. At this stage of their development, it would take a meltdown by Armstrong for Bo Pelini and Tim Beck to make a change. But things can change quickly in September, especially once the Huskers hit that stretch of five consecutive night games.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
PM ET
College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
12:00
PM ET
Saw Jack White perform "Seven Nation Army" live this weekend. Felt like I was back in a Big Ten football stadium. Soon enough.

Preseason position review: LB

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
9:00
AM ET
Linebacker was arguably the deepest and most talented position in the Big Ten last year. This season, the position takes on a new look, as stars like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Iowa's trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have all moved on.

Who's in the best and worst shape at the linebacker spot? Let's take a look as we continue our preseason position series:

Best of the best: Michigan State
Say what? The team that lost Bullough and Allen is still ranked first here? No, we haven't completely lost our minds. We just believe in the talent on hand -- and especially defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's ability to mold it into something special. Taiwan Jones probably would have started for most other college teams the past couple of years and looks poised to break out as Bullough's replacement in the middle. Darien Harris played well while helping fill in for Bullough during the Rose Bowl and will have an outside spot locked down. Ed Davis is a great athlete who was a third-down specialist last year; he can make up for Allen's absence as a blitzer. Backups like Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke will push the starters. This is not a sure thing, as the group has some questions to answer. But it's a safe bet that the Spartans' linebackers will come through.

Next up: Michigan
The Wolverines return all three starters to a crew that should be their best position group on defense. Jake Ryan might well be the best linebacker in the Big Ten, especially if he returns to his playmaking ways after dealing with his ACL tear recovery last fall. He moves to the middle this year, pushing James Ross III to the strong side. Ross is a little undersized for that spot but could overcome it with athleticism and instincts. Desmond Morgan has been rock solid the past couple of years. We'd like to see a few more big plays out of this group, but Ryan should be able to provide that. Nebraska and Penn State are also contenders for having the best linebacker position this season.

Sleeper: Ohio State
Outside of Shazier, the Buckeyes struggled to find standout players at linebacker the past couple of years. So his jump to the NFL stings. Still, the coaching staff is optimistic about the direction of this group. Joshua Perry started coming on late last year, including a strong Orange Bowl performance, and could step in Shazier's shoes as the leader here. Darron Lee is an excellent athlete who made waves this spring. Can senior Curtis Grant finally live up to his potential? If not, true freshman Raekwon McMillan could step into his place in the middle. The talent level here is getting back to vintage Silver Bullets days.

Problem for a contender: Iowa
Not a big problem, per se, as the Hawkeyes like what they have in former top backups Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, along with talented true sophomore Reggie Spearman. Still, any time you lose the experience and production that Iowa did -- the trio of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens combined for 985 career tackles and 105 starts -- the transition to a new era may not always be smooth. The good news is the Hawkeyes' defensive line remains strong, allowing the linebackers more freedom to simply make plays. Don't expect this to be much of a problem for long, if at all.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
5:00
PM ET
The weather feels like fall already in Columbus. The only thing missing is a football game, but at least we have some Twitter questions to bring us one day closer to the season. Be sure to follow me here to get a jump on the next mailbag.

Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.

Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.

Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..

Big Ten lunch links

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
12:00
PM ET
If anybody needs me this weekend, you can find me here. First, let's rock out to these links:

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