Big Ten Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
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Week 4 features a new voice in the predictions mix as our new Big Ten reporter Dan Murphy jumps into the fray. It also features a handful of games our writers disagree on, including games involving programs that desperately need to rebound with a win this week.

 

Why Iowa will win: Call me a contrarian if you'd like (I've been called much worse), but Iowa seems to rise up at the unlikeliest of times. Pitt has looked way better than the Hawkeyes this season. The Panthers can run the ball (James Conner has 544 rush yards and eight touchdowns), while Iowa can't (393 rush yards, four touchdowns). Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin assistant, knows the Hawkeyes well. So of course I'm going with Iowa, which will discover its run game and force two second-half turnovers to rally for the win. Iowa 21, Pitt 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Pitt will win: Adam did a pretty good job of making my argument for me. This game hinges on who wins the battle between Iowa’s front seven and the Panthers’ running game. Conner's 214 rushing yards against Boston College in a 30-20 win look a lot more impressive this week after the Eagles held USC's entire offense to 20 rushing yards. Pitt also has some good experience in the secondary (CB Lafayette Pitts and S Ray Vinopal) that could put a dent in the strong completion percentage Jake Rudock has put together thus far. Pitt 27, Iowa 17 -- Dan Murphy

 

Why Syracuse will win: Beating MAC teams isn't easy, as the Big Ten can attest. Well, Syracuse went on the road last week and crushed Central Michigan, one of the better MAC squads, by 37 points, looking nothing like the team that was extremely fortunate to get by Villanova in its opener. The Orange are a different offense with quarterback Terrel Hunt at the helm, and they're stout in defending the run (opponents average just 2.7 yards against them). Maryland makes too many mistakes to get this win on the road. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: Maryland has shown an explosiveness on offense and special teams, but the Terrapins have lacked consistency. They will need to avoid the turnovers and wild mood swings on the road at Syracuse. Former Orange quarterback Randy Edsall's team has enough playmakers to get the job done. Maryland 31, Syracuse 27 -- Brian Bennett

 

Why Utah will win: Unless Brady Hoke’s unwillingness to talk about injuries is based around a desire to spring a surprise by unleashing a healthy secondary on the Utes, the Wolverines could have their hands full with Travis Wilson, the nation’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The jury is still out on Michigan’s offense as well, particularly since it was shut out at Notre Dame, its only true test so far, and has shown signs that issues protecting the football haven’t been solved. That’s not a good combination against a program that appears to be on the rebound and actually has prior experience winning at the Big House under Kyle Whittingham. Utah 34, Michigan 27 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Utah is good, but it's no Notre Dame. The Utes' success so far this season has come against two lowly opponents -- Idaho State and Fresno State -- so they might be getting a little bit more credit than they deserve. Devin Gardner is a wild card, but I can't see him committing another four turnovers, at least not in the Big House. Michigan 31, Utah 28 -- Josh Moyer

 

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers is actually an underdog against Navy, and this game has serious letdown potential after the Scarlet Knights got sky high for Penn State. Yet the Scarlet Knights have been very good against the run and have the defensive front to disrupt the Navy option. That will be enough to pull it out -- provided Gary Nova doesn't throw another five interceptions. Rutgers 24, Navy 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Navy will win: The Scarlet Knights said there would be no letdown after the loss last week to Penn State. But Rutgers invested so much energy in the program’s first meeting in nearly two decades with the Nittany Lions that, yes, there will be a letdown. And be sure of this, Navy requires Rutgers’ full attention. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is expected back from injury on Saturday to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 400 yards. Rutgers looks equipped up front to defend the triple option with Darius Hamilton and a solid line, but Navy’s offensive efficiency will prove too much to overcome. It has won eight straight true home games dating to 2012. Make it nine. Navy 31, Rutgers 21 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Illinois over Texas State, 38-21: The Illini running game finally emerges and opens things up for Wes Lunt to have a big second half in Champaign.

Missouri over Indiana, 42-27: The Hoosiers couldn’t help the Big Ten’s nonconference record against the MAC’s Bowling Green last week. They aren’t likely to turn that around against an undefeated SEC opponent.

Michigan State over Eastern Michigan, 52-3: Former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's last crack at the Big Ten doesn't go any better than the first time around. Mark Dantonio calls off his dogs after halftime to keep this one from getting uglier than it could.

Minnesota over San Jose State, 27-13: David Cobb and the Gophers show they are still headed in a good direction despite a disappointing showing against TCU last Saturday.

Nebraska over Miami, 34-31: The Canes have the talent to make it close, but they don’t have the quarterback to steal a game from a big-time opponent on the road yet.

Northwestern over Western Illinois, 24-10: Pat Fitzgerald keeps it simple and forces his team to play the bully role while trying to develop a new toughness in Evanston.

Penn State over UMass, 44-14: The Christian Hackenberg hype machine continues its crescendo toward a primetime matchup in the Big House in early October.

Purdue over Southern Illinois, 28-20: The Salukis put up a fight, but Danny Etling builds on a strong performance against Notre Dame to pull the Boilermakers to 2-2.

Wisconsin over Bowling Green, 33-7: Bowling Green won’t be able to sneak up on a well-rested Badgers team at Camp Randall Stadium.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 31-6
Adam Rittenberg: 29-8
Austin Ward: 29-8
Brian Bennett: 28-9
Josh Moyer: 27-10

Big Ten morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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Hitting on the hottest topics in the Big Ten before sweeping through the league ahead of another critical non-conference Saturday.

1. Minnesota's QB quandary: There's not exactly a controversy under center, since the Gophers have made it quite clear that Mitch Leidner is the top option to lead the offense. But for the second week in a row, there have been questions about his health, and therein lies the uncertainty that could turn this into a more pressing issue for Jerry Kill. The Minnesota coach pegged Leidner at 100 percent on his injured knee last week, but Saturday something else popped up with his foot -- though Kill shot down reports of a broken bone and seemed puzzled by where they came from. Backup Chris Streveler has appeared in all three games and was needed to finish the last two, and at some point if he keeps handling himself well and if Leidner's bumps and bruises remain a weekly topic of conversation, perhaps the Gophers may find themselves in the midst of a real controversy. This week it probably won't matter given the way Minnesota ran the ball all over San Jose State last year. But Michigan is looming next week, and the Gophers would likely be better off if they didn't have to keep answering questions about their starting quarterback.

2. Waiting game for Buckeyes: From the outside, the case seems pretty open and shut regarding Noah Spence's latest failed drug test and what figures to be permanent ineligibility for the All-Big Ten defensive end. But there hasn't yet been an official verdict handed down, so Ohio State coach Urban Meyer confirmed after practice Wednesday night that Spence was still practicing with the team while "doing things to get healthy." Given what would seem to be a long-shot appeal combined with the serious tone from the Spence family when they addressed a "medical illness" to the Columbus Dispatch last week, it is somewhat surprising that the star junior would be back on the field at all right now while each of those separate, but related, issues are sorted out. Meyer stressed that Ohio State was doing what it could to support him, and if Spence is eventually cleared for a return, everybody involved would surely want him ready to play again. So unless or until the Big Ten tells him otherwise, Spence is still working out with the Buckeyes and waiting for the next update on his status.

3. Heat is on Hawkeyes: The running game is struggling. The kicking game looked like a fire drill even when the field-goal unit hit a clutch attempt last weekend. Kirk Ferentz is under fire with his clock management skills being questioned. And after dealing with all that in the aftermath of the loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes have to hit the road to play unbeaten Pittsburgh before diving into conference play. Maybe Iowa could actually use that traveling time to bond and rally against the odds that seem to be stacking up against the program, because it's pretty clear the team needs a spark. The Hawkeyes were a trendy dark horse pick to win the West, and no matter what happens at Pitt it should be fine next week at home to open conference play against Purdue. But it's time for them to show they really have what it takes to contend this fall.

East Division
  • Brady Hoke explained the reasoning behind his unwillingness to address injuries.
  • Michigan State right guard Connor Kruse could be back in the lineup as early as next week.
  • Keys for Penn State as it looks to move to 4-0 to open the season.
  • The secondary has been key for Rutgers defensively so far this season, and it will need its safeties to play a big role against Navy.
  • Fixing problems on third down has been a top priority for Maryland this week.
  • Indiana receiver J-Shun Harris II is developing into another weapon for the uptempo offense.
  • Just more than a year after believing his football career might be over, Donovan Munger is providing depth at defensive tackle for Ohio State.
West Division
  • Danny Etling knows how to prepare. The Purdue quarterback might be overdoing it though.
  • Nebraska defensive backs are preparing for "the fastest receivers" they've ever gone against.
  • It doesn't appear Pat Fitzgerald is easing off the intensity at all coming off the bye week and as kickoff draws closer.
  • Injuries are dominating the headlines at Minnesota, but the offensive line is coordinator Matt Limegrover's biggest concern.
  • A look at the Texas State defense, which has some athletes who can provide a test for the Illinois offense.
  • Pressing questions for Wisconsin as it gets back to work against Bowling Green.
  • Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said the Hawkeyes needed a "kick in the butt" after losing to Iowa State.

UA jersey tour: ATH Brian Cole

September, 17, 2014
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If you ask some of Brian Cole's friends and family, they would tell you they think Cole has a chance to be the best football player to come out of Saginaw. That’s saying a lot since the Michigan city is home to some big-name football players, including current NFL player LaMarr Woodley among others.

Cole has ties to many of the former players from his hometown, including Michigan State receiver DeAnthony Arnett and former NFL player Stuart Schweigert. Cole doesn’t know Woodley personally, but he did get the opportunity to speak with him at an arena football game earlier in the year.

“LaMarr was teaching me about life and football,” he said. “We talked for a little while about everything. It was before I was committed to Michigan, so we didn’t talk about Michigan really.”

The ESPN 300 prospect was presented with his Under Armour All-America jersey on Wednesday and is the first from his hometown to play in the prestigious game.

“It’s just a blessing,” he said. “It’s real exciting and I’m just really thankful for this opportunity.”
If you could start a team with any player in your class, who would it be? I don’t really pay attention to recruiting that much. I would pick Alex Malzone; I'm the closest with him. I need that go-to guy at quarterback so I’d go with him.

What is your first football memory? My first Lions game, running on the field. I got selected for the halftime show. I was about five and I won, we had to do a relay race, put different clothes on and the big shoes. I was a size four an they were a size 13. Me and my dad walked in and some big, tall guy asked us if we wanted to be in the halftime show, I didn’t know what was going on but I was excited.

What football player did you idolize growing up? Barry Sanders. He was good, he could do it all. Watching his highlights he was unstoppable, he could make you miss and he could do anything.

If you could take on one athlete in any sport, who would it be? I like hockey. I would take on Zdeno Chara. We play NHL video games and Chara always wins the fights in that game so that would be funny, because he's so big.

What number do you wear and why? I wear No. 1 because God is No. 1 and that’s my favorite number. I’ve talked to the Michigan coaches about the No. 1 at Michigan. I’m going to get it. I’m going to earn it, you have to earn it, but that’s my goal. I haven’t talked to Devin Funchess about it yet, but I saw that he has it.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? I’m humble. Most people really don’t know me, so they don’t know. I don’t really talk about sports, either, unless people ask me. I like hockey, too. I was always an active kid and all my friends had ice rinks in their backyards so I learned how to ice skate at a young age and I would always rollerblade and play hockey. I wish I knew how to play hockey.

Texas, Michigan schedule games

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- With the matchup between college football's top two all-time wins leaders on hold for the foreseeable future, the Michigan Wolverines have moved on to the next-closest option.

The Wolverines and the Texas Longhorns, who are No. 3 in all-time wins, announced plans Wednesday for a future home-and-home series. The Longhorns will visit Ann Arbor in 2024, and Michigan will reciprocate with a trip to Austin in '27.

"A matchup of this magnitude doesn't come along all that often, and when it does, it's special for both programs and the great fans that support each institution," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement. "This also is a special series for all fans of college football, and I anticipate great games just like the first contest played between the two programs."

In their only previous meeting, Texas beat Michigan on a last-second field goal to win the 2005 Rose Bowl.

The scheduled matchups are for Aug. 31, 2024, and Sept. 4, 2027.

Michigan and Notre Dame, which ranks No. 2 in all-time wins, decided to end their annual rivalry after this season.

Since Michigan and Notre Dame decided to end their rivalry, the Wolverines have scheduled several home-and-home matchups, including Arkansas (2018-19), Washington (2020-21), Virginia Tech (2020-21), UCLA (2022-23) and Oklahoma (2025-26).


(Read full post)


Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Three weeks' worth of games are in the book. That's not enough to decide the individual award races in the Big Ten, but it won't stop us from figuring out where those races stand.

Our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records.

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (Five first-place votes): Abdullah gets the unanimous nod on offense as he continues to power up the Huskers attack.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He has become the master of the two-minute drive, and he leads the Big Ten in passing.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (437) and rushing touchdowns (five) despite having played just two games. He's averaging 9.3 yards per carry.

4. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: His completion rate is over 68 percent, and Cook can build on his stats against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming the next two weeks.

5. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: He wasn't able to summon late-game magic at Washington in Week 3 but still is among the league's top passers.

Also receiving votes: Michigan RB Derrick Green; Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon; Minnesota RB David Cobb; Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (5): Another unanimous pick, Zettel has been a monster in the early going for the Lions. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with seven, to go along with three sacks.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: He's tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

3. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat: His strong start to the season continues, as he has four tackles for loss along Iowa's strong defensive front.

4. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: He and the Badgers were off last week but should get a test from Bowling Green's fast-paced offense.

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.

NCAA: RB Ty Isaac must sit out '14

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:59
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[+] EnlargeTy Isaac
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesTy Isaac will have three years of eligibility remaining with Michigan.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Running back Ty Isaac's appeal to play this season for Michigan was denied by the NCAA, coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday.

The sophomore, who transferred from USC this summer, had applied for a medical hardship waiver in an attempt to play immediately. Isaac, a Chicago-area native, said he was returning to the Midwest to be closer to his mother, who was recovering from hearing loss surgery.

The NCAA denied his initial request to skip the mandatory one-year waiting period for transfer players in late August.

Isaac ran for 236 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries during his freshman year with the Trojans. The Wolverines had hoped he would be a part of the running back rotation in Ann Arbor this season.

Hoke said Isaac has been a productive member of the team while working with the scout team this fall.

"He's handled it great," Hoke said. "He had a great day yesterday. From an attitude standpoint and everything else, he's been awesome."


(Read full post)


video

Adam Rittenberg explains what's wrong with the Big Ten conference and whether or not the conference is doing anything to reverse its downward trajectory.
video

ESPN's Heather Dinich and Brad Edwards take a look at the current woes of the Big Ten conference.

Recruits weigh in on the Big Ten 

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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It’s a vicious cycle. You have to win to get the right recruits, and you have to get the right recruits to win. That’s the merry-go-round the Big Ten conference is currently on, and depending on who you ask, recruits have varying opinions on the conference.

Prospects from the North tend to believe the conference is still in the upper echelon, while a good amount of Southern recruits would say quite the opposite.

The Big Ten has an overall record of 24-14 with only two undefeated teams left, compared to the SEC with eight undefeated teams. The Big Ten also has the lowest winning percentage (63 percent) this season for any Power 5 conference, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

You could argue that there is a direct correlation to those wins and losses when comparing the number of big-name commitments as well. The SEC currently has 87 ESPN 300 prospects committed where the Big Ten has 27.

An ESPN 300 prospect from the South who wished to remain anonymous believes part of the Big Ten’s problems on the field and recruiting have to do with geography and coaching.

“The recruiting areas from the North and Midwest aren’t really a hotbed for recruiting. Plus, other than Ohio State or maybe Michigan, there’s not really any big cities or things you can sell recruits on outside of the university,” he said. “Like what does a kid from Florida do at some of those places? Plus, getting a well-known coach like Urban Meyer is a big reason why kids down here like Ohio State.

“They know he can turn things around there and they’ll win. They need to get bigger-name coaches where kids can say, 'Yeah, I know him and I know he’ll get me ready for the NFL.'"

That isn’t the sentiment for every prospect, but plenty of other Southern ESPN 300 recruits agreed with this thinking.

The Northern prospects interviewed did believe the conference is top-heavy with a few teams in the national championship conversation every year, but they had different thoughts on the outlook as a whole.

Big Ten morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Nebraska-Miami occupies a special place in my heart and mind. Their games of the 1980s and ‘90s symbolized an era of college football. It was power versus speed, stability matched against flash.

The programs' styles stood in perfect contrast. Yet in four Orange Bowl meetings over 11 years, they made for the game's best of unlikely rivalries. Though Nebraska slipped from the top in the midst of that decade, by the end, it had supplanted Miami like the Hurricanes did to Tom Osborne's team after the 1983 season.

The Hurricanes visit Lincoln on Saturday night. The thought of those two helmets together again stirs emotions. It feels big -- bigger, apparently, than it is.

ESPN's matchup-quality metric ranks games on a zero-to-100 scale, based on the team's spots in the Football Power Index and the expected competitiveness. It was jarring this week not to find Nebraska-Miami among the top five matchups in Week 4.

It's Nebraska-Miami, after all. When these two have met historically, it's not just the biggest game of the week; it's the biggest of the year.

But today in college football, Florida-Alabama (91.6 matchup quality), Clemson-Florida State (90.5), Mississippi State-LSU (90.1), Oklahoma-West Virginia (87.2) and Auburn-Kansas State (87.0) earn higher billing than the Huskers and Hurricanes.

I heard an intriguing question this week: What program is better positioned, Nebraska or Miami, to make a run at the top again? I can't say definitively. Nebraska's infrastructure and internal resources favor it; Miami's natural resources are a big advantage.

But until Nebraska-Miami cracks the top five most important games on a September weekend, neither team is in position to join the national conversation.
  • Another interesting question: What Big Ten team on Saturday matched against a Power 5 opponent is most in need of a win this week? Other than Nebraska-Miami, Iowa visits Pittsburgh, Maryland visits Syracuse, Utah plays at Michigan and Indiana visits Missouri. While I'm tempted to pick Iowa, but my answer is Michigan. A loss by the Wolverines against the high-flying Utes, who won at the Big House in 2008, would serve to draw another parallel between this staff and the previous regime. And that's not good for Brady Hoke. Neither are all these turnovers.
  • Columnist Rick Brown of the Des Moines Registers urges Iowa fans upset with Kirk Ferentz to be careful what they wish for. I understand the sentiment and agree that Iowa does more with less better than several Big Ten counterparts. But have you watched the Big Ten lately? Why use Illinois and Minnesota as the measuring stick? It's OK to set the bar high. Fans ought to be upset with the Hawkeyes' offensive play. Don't apologize for reasonable expectations.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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Penn State picked up some good news from the NCAA, which resulted in more positive news on the recruiting trail this weekend. Ohio State solidified its spot in a top target's list, and a few new offers were extended this week.

Here is a look at the latest happenings on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten.


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Whittingham, Hoke reunite in Ann Arbor

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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During his two-year stint as San Diego State's football coach, Brady Hoke would often make not-so-subtle overtures about his desire to be the head coach at Michigan. On more than one occasion, Hoke said he envisioned his career arc ending in Ann Arbor, where he'd spent eight seasons as an assistant before head coaching stops at Ball State and SDSU. And he made no secret to his employers that if the maize and blue ever called, he'd be gone.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke has been unable to build upon an impressive first year at his dream job.
Following the 2010 season, Michigan called. Hoke answered with vigor.

Around that time, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes were wrapping up their final season as a Mountain West team. Utah, just two years removed from a 13-0 season and No. 2 BCS ranking, was regarded as one of the top non-AQ teams in the country and was headed to the newly-branded Pac-12.

Since leaving their old league in their wake, things haven't exactly gone according to script for these former A-list Mountain West coaches. And when their teams meet Saturday at The Big House, it's possible the outcome could alter the trajectories of their respective careers.

Hoke enjoyed an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year with the Wolverines but has seen declining returns after an 8-5 record in 2012 and a 7-6 mark last year. He sits on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.

Meanwhile, Whittingham and the Utes have struggled to adapt to Pac-12 football. The Utes are just 9-18 in conference play since joining the league (a vicious strain of yearly quarterback injuries doesn't go unnoticed) and have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Whittingham's seat isn't as hot as Hoke's, but if the Utes fail to make the postseason for a third straight year, it will be.

"No coach I know of pays any attention to external chatter," Whittingham said. "We're so focused on what we're doing. That's how you have to be. That's how you have to operate. You can't be distracted."

A victory Saturday puts the Utes at 3-0 heading into conference play and gives them a quality road win over a nationally-relevant opponent. A loss sends a signal that the Utes still aren't ready for Power 5 football.

A Michigan win won't make or break Hoke's career. But a loss could re-ignite an already agitated fan base still smarting from a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in Week 2.

"They all count as one win," Whittingham said. "If the Michigan game counted as two wins, it would be a lot more important. It's not a conference game, so it obviously doesn't impact what happens in our league. But every game is critical and we're not going to approach this one any differently."

Exactly what you'd expect Whittingham to say. However, after beating up on FCS teams, BYU and Mountain West teams the last three years in nonconference play, this is Utah's biggest non-league test since joining the Pac-12. And it's outside the state of Utah, where the Utes have only won once in the last two seasons.

There really isn't a common denominator for why both coaches have struggled in their new surroundings. Hoke went to an already established Power 5 team, rich in success and tradition. Whittingham was shepherding an entire program into a significantly tougher conference.

Still, Hoke inherited a Rich Rodriguez team that was built for the spread and an odd-front defense. His first three years have been spent trying to install a pro-style attack and an even-front defense.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham's Utes have struggled adjusting to life in the Pac-12
"When you're changing from a philosophic/schematic standpoint to a four-down front, recruiting those guys you want to play in there, you have to recruit the genetics," Hoke said. "Recruiting is always going to be part of it. The overall philosophy you have as a coach, how you want to develop your program, that's all part of it."

Both coaches concede the obvious -- that the weekly grind in the Power 5 is significantly harder. In the Mountain West, Utah's season usually came down to one big game against TCU. This year they face a four-game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon and at Stanford -- four teams currently ranked in the AP top 20.

"Everyone in the Pac-12 has to deal with that, so it's not unique to us," Whittingham said. "It's a big difference from what we experienced at the non-Power 5 level ... The recruiting is better. It's all about players. Coaches are way overrated. It's all about players and personnel. The personnel in the Pac-12 is markedly better than the personnel in the Mountain West across the board."

In their two Mountain West meetings, Whittingham's Utes beat Hoke's Aztecs both times. But given the coaching and personnel changes, those game films are moot. And while Whittingham is trying to bring his team to the next level, Hoke is scrambling to hold on to the position he called his "dream job" a year before he even had it.

"You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you are representing and I think we've got great leadership on this team," Hoke said of the outside noise calling for his ouster. "... We understand how we need to compete every Saturday and go about our business."

For both coaches, Saturday might be just as much about staying in business.

Planning for success: Michigan

September, 16, 2014
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There is only one team in the country that has racked up a worse turnover margin than Michigan through the first three weeks of the 2014 season.

The Wolverines have lost the ball eight times so far this season in a wide variety of ways. Sophomore cornerback Jourdan Lewis' interception on the second drive of last weekend’s 34-10 win over Miami (Ohio) was the team’s first and only takeaway at this point. The resulting minus-7 margin is one away from matching Louisiana-Lafayette at the bottom of the national rankings.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Tony Ding/Associated PressDevin Gardner and the Michigan offense has eight turnovers in the first three games.
“Obviously that’s been a point of emphasis,” first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said Monday. “It will continue to be a point of emphasis. We’re not going to play winning football if we continue on this pace. Our guys understand that we’ve got to get that corrected.”

Nussmeier’s offense will need to take better care of the ball this weekend if the Wolverines plan to survive a visit from Pac-12 opponent Utah. The Utes and their third-ranked scoring offense (57.5 points per game) have the firepower to cash in on their opponents’ mistakes.

Michigan’s blunders have come in bunches during the past two weeks. Senior quarterback Devin Gardner accounted for three (two interceptions and a fumble) on the first four drives of the second half in a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish led by three touchdowns when that flurry began, but Gardner’s issues eliminated any chance of a comeback attempt in South Bend. He added another interception on the final play of the game.

Opposing defenses picked off Gardner’s passes 11 times last season. All but one of those came in the first six games of the season, which led Michigan to believe those bad decisions were a thing of the past. Head coach Brady Hoke has been steadfast in his stance that Gardner will remain the team’s starting quarterback.

The three turnovers that came in a five-minute span against Miami (Ohio) can’t be blamed on Gardner. His one interception in that stretch was tipped at the line of scrimmage. The pick was sandwiched by two fumbles -- one from wide receiver Amara Darboh and the other on a botched kickoff return -- that let the clearly overmatched last-place MAC team hang with Michigan throughout the first half. Against better competition, the Wolverines will likely pay a bigger price for their miscues.

“You can’t have turnovers,” sophomore tight end Jake Butt said following Saturday’s victory. “That’s something we’ve talked about time and time and time again. Once we took care of the ball, we moved the ball. We just shoot ourselves in the foot when we turn it over.”

Everyone in the Michigan locker room recognizes the dangerous pattern, but Hoke said there isn’t one clear source of the problem or an easy solution.

“Coincidence? I don’t know,” he said when asked why the turnovers were coming in spurts. “Are we concerned about it? Yeah. We need to hold on to the ball and we need to get more turnovers on defense.”

Creating turnovers is an important and somewhat overlooked piece to the plan for a more successful turnover margin this weekend. Hoke said his team missed two opportunities to take the ball away from the RedHawks last weekend.

Despite its success in other departments this season, the Wolverines defense is tied for dead last nationally in total takeaways. The absence of starting cornerback Raymon Taylor and safety Jarrod Wilson, both with undisclosed injuries, has put more pressure on an inexperienced rotation of replacements to make big plays in the secondary.

The good news for Michigan this weekend is that the Utes are equally void of playmakers in the defensive backfield. Kyle Whittingham’s defense, which has no problem getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, has intercepted only one pass in its last nine games. Last year’s team finished with only three picks, which tied four other programs for the lowest total in FBS. If Gardner and the Wolverines are going to put their turnover troubles behind them, this weekend would be a great time to start.

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Longhorns, Wolverines Announce Home-And-Home Series
Heather Dinich discusses the announced plans for a future home-and-home series between Texas and Michigan.
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