Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
5:00
PM ET
Coming back at you with another mailbag. Bring it:

Husker fan from St Louis writes: The Big Ten's 2014 pre-bowl perception will be largely base on the nonconference games you ranked Tuesday 1 to 14. What kind of record does the Big Ten need to fare favorably? What key games are must wins for perception? What's your prediction for the Big Ten's record in those games?

Brian Bennett: It's not just perception on the line but also the Big Ten's chances of getting a team in the College Football Playoff. The view of a 12-1 Big Ten champion would be greatly enhanced if the league scored several key out-of-conference wins. Conversely, the league could find itself shut out if the nonconference performance suffers.

The two most important games, obviously, are Michigan State at Oregon in Week 2 and Wisconsin vs. LSU in the opener. Of course, the Big Ten entry figures to be a significant underdog in those games. Of the top 14 listed, I see two other matchups where the Big Ten team should be a sizeable underdog: Illinois at Washington and Indiana at Missouri. The league should be favored to win the following matchups:
  • Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech, Navy and Cincinnati
  • Iowa vs. Iowa State and (possibly) at Pitt
  • Nebraska vs. Miami

Most of the other games are likely toss-ups, or close to it, on paper. The league needs to win more than its fair share and can't have a team like Ohio State or Nebraska lose a game it is supposed to win, especially at home. Even competitive games but close losses by Michigan State and Wisconsin would not necessarily be a bad thing if the conference takes care of business elsewhere. And doing well against Notre Dame always helps keep the critics at bay.


Glenn K. from Siesta Key writes: Brian, it's almost going beyond annoying to being funny that year after year you, Adam and other so-called "experts" continue to pick OSU as the favorite to either win the division or the B1G title outright. Yet, each year they choke in the big games where it really counts or win their division by default. You even mentioned the question marks about some position groups for the 2014 season, yet you justify them by saying that Saint Urban is their coach, which makes everything OK. Stop riding his shirt tails from the national championships he won at Florida, playing a lot of questionable recruits. What has he really done in Ohio, except go undefeated with Jim Tressel's recruits?

Brian Bennett: Funny, huh? I assume you're trolling here, Glenn. Because you do realize, I hope, that Ohio State has won the division in each of the past two years, and I don't think going 12-0 in two straight regular seasons involves any kind of default. And surely you're aware that between 2002 and 2010, the Buckeyes won or shared the league championship seven times and captured five BCS bowl victories. Ohio State gets too much grief for its back-to-back losses in the national title game (when no other Big Ten team ever made it that far in the BCS era) and not enough credit for its big bowl wins. To be clear, I haven't yet officially picked anybody to win the East Division or Big Ten title in 2014, and I may or may not wind up picking the Buckeyes. But based on recent track record alone, they make for a very safe choice.


Truman from Chicago writes: You wrote: "Ohio State is officially the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten title at 1-to-1. It's interesting that the Buckeyes are such favorites despite so many question marks, including offensive line, running back, receiver and defensive back seven. But the faith in Urban Meyer is strong." Or is it that Vegas believes the rest of the league is really that bad? I have a hard time seeing anyone other than Ohio State in the Top 25 at the end of the season. Yes, even Michigan State could be a letdown. After the early loss to Oregon the Spartans will be prime upset candidates. So does the Big Ten getting to the playoff rely on Michigan State beating Oregon?

Brian Bennett: You guys are downers today. No one besides Ohio State in the Top 25? That's just silly. Even in a relatively down year like 2012, the Big Ten had four teams finish in the Top 25. Let's be realistic here. Michigan State is a legitimately good team and will be fine regardless of the outcome in Eugene. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and others are also prime candidates to not only win the league but finish ranked. And there are several others who could jump up.

Ohio State's odds, I believe, are influenced at least a little by its name brand. Remember that the Vegas guys set odds hoping to get you to bet money; they know that there are a ton of Buckeyes fans roaming around and that casual fans recognize the Urban Meyer factor. Teams like Michigan State and Iowa are a little undervalued right now. Hint, hint.


Dave in the 740 writes: It's my contention that the B1G screwed up by going to an East-West setup and not a North-South setup. Look at what a North-South setup could look like:
  • North: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue.
  • South: Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.

This setup would allay most of Nebraska's concerns, as well as a number of others. It would get them annual games with Penn State and Ohio State (as an Ohio State follower, I wonder why they would want to play a program in decline like Michigan, but whatever). It would also set up annual North division rivalry games between Minnesota-Iowa (Floyd of Rosedale...the best trophy game of all time), Minnesota-Wisconsin (Paul Bunyan's Axe, tied for second best with...), Minnesota-Michigan (The Jug), Michigan-Michigan State (a budding annual classic) and maybe Northwestern-Purdue. Yes, Purdue-Indiana and Ohio State-Michigan would be protected rivalries, but so what? It would also preserve the Ohio State-Illinois Illibuck rivalry (such as it is), keep the Ohio State-Penn State series going, and allow Penn State to continue its off-and-on rivalry with Maryland (35-1-1!) and build one with Rutgers.

Brian Bennett: A couple of things here. First off, I thought it was very important -- and the league obviously agreed -- to put Ohio State and Michigan in the same division to avoid a possible rematch a week after The Game (not that the Wolverines have been all that close to going to the Big Ten title game lately, but still). I like the East-West setup because it's a lot easier to remember which schools are in the East and which are West than it is to figure out if, for example, Lincoln, Nebraska, is south of West Lafayette, Indiana.

The one difference in the current setup that I argued for was switching Michigan State to the West Division. Given the way the Spartans have played in recent years, that would have put another power in the West and potentially balanced out the divisions more. But, hey, the East-West is here the way it is, so let's see how it plays out. We can all agree it's a vast improvement over Legends and Leaders.


Rodney from Grantville, Pennsylvania, writes: Has the B1G considered scheduling crossover games based on previous year standings? If they were doing the nine-game schedule this year, MSU would have to play Wisconsin and Iowa -- same for OSU -- and on the other end Purdue would play Indiana and Rutgers, for example. This would give the B1G more marquee matchups and would also give the schools that are struggling a break from having difficult crossover games giving them more of a chance to become bowl eligible.

Brian Bennett: It's a nice idea in theory, Rodney, but college football isn't the same as the NFL. Schedules are done years in advance to give schools plenty of time to prepare and set up their nonconference schedule. It would be great if there were a little more flexibility in those schedules, but no conference does it that way. We can hope the parity scheduling idea results in good matchups down the road, but the danger of setting those in advance is that teams' fortunes can rise and fall dramatically in the intervening years.
Does Ohio State get a little too much credit sometimes? Sure.

Still, if you're trying to figure out which Big Ten team will be the best over the next three years, it would be hard to argue against the Buckeyes.

That's exactly the conclusion ESPN.com panel consisting of Travis Haney, Brad Edwards, Brock Huard, Tom Luginbill and Mark Schlabach reached in their second annual college football future rankings. The panel ranked the top 25 college football teams over the next three years based on factors such as coaching, current talent, recruiting, title path and program power.

Ohio State checks in at No. 3 in that Top 25, and it's no real surprise. Sure, the Buckeyes haven't actually won a Big Ten championship in the division era, but all the pieces are there. Urban Meyer has a championship track record, he and his staff have been recruiting outstanding athletes, and few schools in the nation can match Ohio State's resources and support.

And let's face it: it could well be easier to win the Big Ten than a league like the SEC in the next few years, giving the Buckeyes a clearer shot to make the College Football Playoff. Edwards sees big things looming in Columbus:

"I don't think they look at themselves as competing with the rest of the Big Ten," he said. "I think they're competing with Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma, USC and teams like that. ... I think Ohio State is going to keep getting better. I think [the Buckeyes are] going to run away from that conference."

Then again, some other schools will have a lot to say about that. Like Michigan State, which beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game last year and doesn't appear to be slowing down under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans checked in at No. 17 in the future rankings Top 25. That might still be undervaluing that program, but the panel sees Michigan State as the No. 2 team in the Big Ten ... three spots ahead of Michigan.

The Wolverines, who have all the money and facilities a team would ever need, have seen their recent recruiting classes garner very lofty rankings. Still, after going just 15-11 the past two years under Brady Hoke, they're trending downward in the panel's view.
"Here comes a painful comparison for Michigan fans: Chizik-era Auburn, without the Cam Newton title year," Haney writes. "Michigan had the Nos. 6 and 7 classes in 2012 and 2013. If you recruit that well and you do not produce, it begins to work against you. ...

"Momentum is definitely working against Michigan. But we said the same thing a year ago about Oklahoma, a program with similar history and tradition (albeit a far more stable coaching situation). Hoke's program is at a crossroads. He could be [Will] Muschamp entering 2015, or he could be Bob Stoops. That's one heck of a spectrum."

Penn State is ranked No. 22, which is pretty impressive considering the program is still dealing with the shackles of probation. The panel likes what James Franklin is doing on the recruiting trail, and how Bill O'Brien set the program up to succeed despite severe hurdles.

Neither Wisconsin nor Nebraska made the Top 25, which seem like slights in my view. Wisconsin, in particular, has been a far more successful and stable program of late than, say, Miami, which checked in at No. 25 in the future rankings. And Nebraska should be favored to beat the Hurricanes when the two teams meet in Lincoln this September. Miami has better access to talent, but the Badgers and Huskers have shown a much better job of actually using their talent in recent years.

I'd place my money on those Big Ten teams over Miami for the next three seasons. I can't wait to find out who is right.

 

Big Ten lunch links

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
12:00
PM ET
Finally, we will determine what is the most powerful country in the world: the Netherlands or Argentina.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
5:00
PM ET
It's been a little while. Let's check that mail.

Follow us here.

Jack from Champaign, Illinois writes: The Illini recently have been getting commitments from some good offense prospects. However, it's hard not to notice the fact that the number of defensive commitments have been lacking. Is there a chance from all these good offense recruits committing that we start to see more defense guys look at Illinois, will that come from the defense showing progress this year, or what exactly should I be looking. Maybe I'm being optimistic, but I'm beginning to feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel for Illinois football. Am I right to feel this way?

Adam Rittenberg: Jack, it still depends on the team taking a step forward this season. The recent recruiting success is encouraging, as Illinois has landed commits from players like receiver A.D. Miller and ESPN 300 offensive tackle Gabe Megginson. The offense appears to be in good hands with Bill Cubit and should put up points again this season. But another bowl-less season leaves athletic director Mike Thomas with a big decision about coach Tim Beckman's future. A coaching change, as you know, often leads to recruiting changes. So it all comes back to how the 2014 Illini perform.




Sparty from Marquette, Michigan writes: Hey Adam, as a Spartan fan I've been thrilled that MSU has been able keep Narduzzi around as long as they have. (My pipe dream is that he'll stay and take over for Dantonio, although maybe a more realistic dream would be that he comes back after Dantonio retires). That being said, do you have any thoughts as to who would make a good replacement? Should Dantonio promote from within or look elsewhere? I have to believe this is something he's put some thought into by now.

Adam Rittenberg: He definitely has put some thought into it, as all head coaches must be prepared to replace assistants every year. Mark Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis both think Pat Narduzzi is ready to become a head coach, and the move should come relatively soon, possibly after the 2014 season if the job is right (Connecticut was not).

Dantonio loves his staff and his track record shows that he will promote from within. He did so with his last two offensive coordinators (Dan Roushar and Dave Warner). I would expect him to give both secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel strong consideration for the coordinator job. Defensive line coach Ron Burton hasn't been with MSU as long but could get a look. If I had to make a prediction of Narduzzi's successor, I'd go with Barnett.




D.L. from Corpus Christi, Texas, writes: For your freak list: Ameer Abdullah, at 5'9" and 190 lbs, has ran for 1,137 yards in 2012 and 1,690 yards in 2013. Ameer has proven himself to be a workhorse while being an undersized RB and on the list of top RB's in the country. Not to mention he choose to finish his education before he turns pro.

Adam Rittenberg: D.L., Bruce Feldman actually puts together the "freaks" list, a must-read in the preseason. But if I put together a Big Ten "freaks" list, I probably would include Abdullah. He has been incredibly productive and durable despite a smaller frame in a very physical conference. I don't know all of his weight-room specifics but imagine they are pretty impressive. Good choice.




Truman from Chicago writes: You said a couple weeks ago, "It would be a major surprise if a Big Ten team that went 13-0 -- including 10 league wins -- is left out of the playoff." A lot of analysts have Ohio getting a spot in the playoffs as well, but is that based on reason or hope? Looking at the calculations a bunch of 1-loss and a few two-loss teams would get the spot before an undefeated Ohio. The only "quality" win will be against a Michigan St team with a loss to a good Pac-12 team that is iffy on winning the conference.

Adam Rittenberg: Truman, it's presumptive to suggest Ohio State's only quality win would come against Michigan State when you don't know how teams in the Big Ten West division will perform, or whether a non-league foe like Virginia Tech makes noise in the ACC. But if the long-awaited playoff keeps out an undefeated team from a major conference, the committee members aren't doing their jobs.

We saw in the BCS era how difficult it was run the table in a major conference. You rarely saw multiple teams finish the season without a blemish. Now there are four spots to offer a potential champion, not two. If a 13-0 Big Ten champion doesn't get in, the system is flawed and the league has a bigger perception problem than I imagined. Remember that a huge initial driver for a playoff system was the 2004 Auburn squad, left out despite a perfect record.




Matt from Ypsilanti, Michigan, writes: Preseason hype for teams is something that is always interesting to me. It seems that how a team finished the prior season has more of a hype impact than what players are returning. MSU and Oklahoma are perfect examples of this. Both finished very strong last season BUT OU starters gone are 4 o-line, TE, 2 WR, RB and entire secondary. MSU loses 3 starters on OL and half the defensive starters. I think both teams fall drastically short of the playoff expectation that many have for them as other teams with more experience leap them in on field performance. Amy I way off with that or do you see why I think this way?

Adam Rittenberg: Definitely an interesting topic, Matt. You could be right about some folks overrating teams that finished 2013 on a high, although I don't see that as much for Michigan State, which sits behind Ohio State on the Big Ten preseason pecking order despite its win against the Buckeyes in the league championship. Returning starters versus starters lost is an important metric, but you also have to look at who is departing and who is back. I don't think MSU's offensive line is in trouble, and while the losses on defense are bigger, Narduzzi has a proven track record of reloading. Both MSU and Oklahoma also return quarterbacks who ended the season with big games. That can't be overlooked.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:00
PM ET
Happy Video Games Day. If anybody needs me, I'll be in front of a Galaga machine.
 
If you want accurate predictions on the 2014 college football season, you could comb the various preseason magazines. You could read expert takes on the Internet (ahem). Or you could go with the Vegas sharps who get paid to know these sorts of things.

I'm always going to look long and hard at the oddsmakers' choices. And Bovada has released its odds for national, Big Ten and league division championships, so let's examine.

The bookmaker sees Ohio State as the Big Ten's top College Football Playoff threat, giving the Buckeyes 10-to-1 odds to win the national championship. That's No. 5 among all teams, behind defending champion Florida State (11-to-2), Alabama (6-to-1), Oregon (8-to-1) and Auburn (9-to-1).

Michigan State checks in as the league's second choice at 25-to-1, tied for 10th among all teams. Wisconsin is next for the Big Ten at 33-to-1, followed by Michigan and Nebraska at 50-to-1 and Iowa at 100-to-1. Rutgers is 1,000-to-1, if any Scarlet Knights fans are feeling lucky.

Ohio State is officially the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten title at 1-to-1. It's interesting that the Buckeyes are such favorites despite so many question marks, including offensive line, running back, receiver and defensive back seven. But the faith in Urban Meyer is strong.

Michigan State and Wisconsin are tied as the second choice at 9-to-2, followed by Nebraska at 5-to-1. Other teams' odds to win the Big Ten championship (Penn State, obviously, is ineligible):

Michigan: 6-to-1
Iowa: 12-to-1
Minnesota: 33-to-1
Northwestern: 40-to-1
Illinois: 66-to-1
Indiana: 66-to-1
Maryland: 100-to-1
Rutgers: 200-to-1
Purdue: 250-to-1

If you're just looking for value here, Iowa is an intriguing bet at 12-to-1. The Hawkeyes own a highly advantageous schedule, with Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Iowa City. They could easily find themselves in Indianapolis for a one-game shot at the title.

Speaking of division winners, Ohio State is a 2-to-5 favorite to win the Big Ten East, ahead of Michigan State at 13-to-5. Wisconsin is 6-to-5 to win the West, edging out Nebraska at 3-to-2 (Iowa is 5-to-1).

Name value plays a role here, as Vegas wants to entice fans to bet on recognizable teams (hence, I believe, the odds for Michigan). But the wiseguys are saying Ohio State deserves to be the clear favorite heading into 2014.
Football will be here before you know it (we hope). So we've been ranking every Big Ten nonconference game this season, from worst to first.

Now we're down to our final 14. These are the best of the best, the games we simply can't wait to see. Let's count 'em down:

No. 14: Illinois at Washington, Sept. 13: Can the Illini take advantage of the Huskies' coaching switch to Chris Petersen? Going to the West Coast doesn't often work out well for Big Ten teams.

No. 13: Minnesota at TCU, Sept. 13: The Gophers' lone chance to score an impressive nonconference win in the regular season. TCU had a very disappointing and out-of-character 4-8 season a year ago.

No. 12: Iowa vs. Iowa State, Sept. 13: A great year for the Hawkeyes almost necessarily has to include a win over the rival Cyclones.

No. 11: Iowa at Pitt, Sept. 20: This nonconference game for Iowa intrigues me just a bit more than the Iowa State rivalry, as former Wisconsin assistant Paul Chryst is starting to build something in the Steel City.

No. 10: Indiana at Missouri, Sept. 20: The Hoosiers go to Columbia to take on the reigning SEC East champs and hope to put up a more competitive showing than they did last year in Bloomington.

No. 9: Ohio State vs. Navy (at Baltimore), Aug. 30: The Buckeyes open against the always difficult Midshipmen attack. Some coaches would rather do that to give themselves an entire offseason to prepare for the option.

No. 8: Northwestern at Notre Dame, Nov. 15: The first game between these two since 1995 is one Wildcats fans have been anticipating for a while. An interesting mid-November date for it, too.

No. 7: Penn State vs. UCF (at Dublin, Ireland), Aug. 30: The exotic locale raises the interest level here. Even without the Irish charm, it's James Franklin's debut, and UCF is coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory.

No. 6: Ohio State vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 27: The Bearcats last beat their in-state big brother in 1897, but you know they will be pouring everything they have into trying to pull this upset -- both for themselves and for the American Athletic Conference.

No. 5: Nebraska vs. Miami (Fla.), Sept. 20: Two great names trying to regain their past swagger. How many clips from the 1983 Orange Bowl will we see in the leadup?

No. 4: Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 6: No one is giving the Hokies much of a shot in this game, but they're always dangerous. It's a game the Buckeyes and the Big Ten have to win.

No. 3: Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6: The last scheduled game in this series, sadly. Crazy stuff almost always happens when these two teams meet, so what's in store for the (for now) finale?

No. 2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (at Houston), Aug. 30: The tonesetter not only for the Badgers but the entire Big Ten. Win it, and Wisconsin is a legitimate player in the College Football Playoff discussion. Lose it, and people might forget about Gary Andersen's team for several weeks because of the schedule.

No. 1: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: Well, sure. Two teams that should be in the preseason top 10. The Spartans' fierce defense vs. Oregon's pyrotechnic offense. The chance for Michigan State to show it truly belongs in the national elite. Can this one hurry up and get here, please?

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
5:00
PM ET
I've got the perfect cure for your post-holiday weekend hangover. It's the Monday mailbag:

John from Omaha writes: Regarding Nebraska vs. Expansion, you missed an important point in your assessment of Husker aversion to the new additions and the resulting new divisions. First, the West Division reminds Husker fans of the Big XII North. This is a problem because there are real disadvantages of being part of a division that is weak in terms of its national brand (star power). Husker fans want to be associated with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan because it will help our program be successful. Playing Michigan, OSU and PSU brings national exposure. Exposure brings more success; exposure builds the Husker national brand, exposure helps recruiting. Exposure is everything. You missed the point entirely by saying the Huskers think they are too good for the West; it's not about Nebraska being too good for the West. IT'S ABOUT NATIONAL EXPOSURE!

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini and the Huskers look to be positioned well in the Big Ten West, but some fans aren't thrilled with the division.
Brian Bennett: John, I wrote in that piece that Nebraska "thought that leaving the Big 12 for Jim Delany's league meant plenty of games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State" and that the Eastern expansion didn't help the Huskers much. So we're on the same wavelength. Remember that one of the goals of adding Maryland and Rutgers was adding that exposure in the highly populated Eastern regions, yet Nebraska might play on the East Coast only once every couple of years.

As for the Big Ten West resembling the Big 12 North, I think that might be a bit unfair. Wisconsin, after all, has been to three Rose Bowls in the past four years and is a nationally recognized brand. Iowa has had a lot of success this century and appears to be on another upswing. Northwestern and Illinois have had their tastes of major bowls. If anything, the West should feature a lot of parity, if not a many superpowers. It will be up to those teams to make sure the balance of power between the two divisions doesn't get out of whack.

Sky F. from Norfolk, Neb., writes: I'd like to quote Herm Edwards here: "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" We here in Nebraska don't really care who we play, so long as we are playing. I'd also like to quote you another saying: "Not the victory but the action, not the goal but the game: in the deed the glory." If that doesn't sum up to you what Nebraska football means to us I don't know what else can. I couldn't care less who we are playing, I regret NOT AT ALL leaving the Big 12; I care only for those fall Saturday afternoons and watching my team play. Sure it'd be nice to play OSU or Michigan, but I'm not going to be too fussed about it one way or another.

Brian Bennett: An interesting take there, Sky, and I would say the record 333-game sellout streak at Memorial Stadium indicates that Big Red will show up no matter who is on the opposing sideline. Parity scheduling should also mean that the Huskers get at least one big-name opponent from the East Division most years, and upgraded nonconference scheduling including the likes of Oklahoma also helps. If Nebraska wins at a healthy rate and plays often in the Big Ten championship game, I don't think there will be too many complaints in Lincoln. Playing in the West can be an advantage, after all.




Bob in Virginia writes: Brian, I can't disagree with your assessment of Rutgers' chances in the key stretch of Michigan, OSU, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Though I would also submit much of the rest of the league would have trouble winning more than one game against that group. I'm not sure Wisconsin's O-line will be the deciding factor in that game. Arkansas had big bodies up front last year as well, though probably not as talented. In the end RU is going to live or die on Gary Nova's arm. If he performs like a senior should we'll win one or two of those games. If not, we're in trouble.

Brian Bennett: Bob, that prediction of 0-4 wasn't a knock on Rutgers as much as it was an acknowledgment of how incredibly difficult that stretch would be for anyone, let alone a team adjusting to a brand new league. As I wrote, Michigan looks like the most beatable team of that group, especially if the Wolverines continue their up-and-down pattern of a year ago. Rutgers might have beaten a Bret Bielema-coached team last year, but he doesn't have Arkansas quite up to his old Wisconsin standards yet. It will be fascinating to see how the Scarlet Knights' undersized but athletic defensive front handles what has long been one of the Big Ten's toughest units to handle in the Badgers' massive O-line. I am with you on your last point: if Rutgers is going to jump up and make some noise, it will have to make huge improvements on offense and at quarterback in general. Ralph Friedgen might be the man to make that happen.




Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: You and quite a few others have stated that the Minnesota 2014 team could be better than the 2013 team and have a worse record. What might be signs of improvement if that is the case: a win over Michigan or perhaps Wisconsin? The defense having similar ratings to last year?

Brian Bennett: The difficulty of the Gophers' 2014 league schedule -- crossover games against Michigan and Ohio State, road matchups at Nebraska and Wisconsin -- make it hard to forecast a better record than last year's 8-4 regular-season mark. But every time I talk to Gophers players and coaches, they sound confident that this could be the best team in the Jerry Kill era. The obvious area for major improvement is in the passing game, which really couldn't be more ineffective than it was last year. The offensive line and running game should remain strong, and the defense should be good if the Gophers make up for the absence of Ra'Shede Hageman. Whether Minnesota can take another step forward likely will come down to if it can pull of some upsets, like breaking those losing streaks against the Wolverines and Badgers.




Thomas C. from Charlotte N.C., writes: Do you see a lack in developing players at Ohio State compared to Michigan State? It seems, if you believe in the rating system that Ohio State and even Michigan land the five-stars and four-stars while others like Michigan State get the leftovers. You can see how well coached the kids at Michigan State are and the impressive wins they are piling up. Do you think kids coming into a system being ranked as a three-star with no hype are easier to develop then the five-star kids who believe they already have one foot into the NFL as freshmen? Concerned Buckeye!

Brian Bennett: I think many programs would suffer in comparison to the player-development abilities of Michigan State (with the exception of maybe Iowa and Wisconsin). The Spartans do that as well as anybody, and though not all of their recruits are highly rated, they do an outstanding job of locating athletes who fit their profile and system without worrying about star rankings. Still, I don't think there's any lack of development at Ohio State. We saw how the offensive line went from an underachieving group to becoming the best in the Big Ten for two years under Ed Warriner. Guys like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown more than lived up to their potential. The safety position and linebackers outside of Shazier haven't had as much success, but I think we'll see that start to change this year. I'm more concerned about Michigan's player-development system, given how few true superstars have emerged yet out of some highly ranked classes in Ann Arbor. But there is still time.
One of the most subjective yet popular elements of the interminable college football offseason is the stadium ranking. We gave it a go back in 2012 and received plenty of vengeful spirited feedback. Good times.

Athlon recently dipped its toe into the stadium rankings pool by asking 15 media members, including ESPN colleague Travis Haney, to rank the nation's top 10 stadiums. Two Big Ten stadiums made the cut: Ohio Stadium at No. 2 and Beaver Stadium at No. 10. Michigan Stadium, Camp Randall Stadium and Nebraska's Memorial Stadium also received votes.

Some might be surprised the Big House didn't make the top 10. I'm not. Although the recent renovations are terrific and enhance the atmosphere at Stadium and Main, especially for night games, Michigan Stadium always has been a bit overrated because of its size. I've always been partial to Camp Randall but think Nebraska's Memorial Stadium easily could make the top 10.

Today's exercise isn't about stumping for your team's stadium. Your task is to identify your favorite Big Ten road venue and tell us why you like it so much. Perhaps it's a place you've visited many times. Maybe you went just once or simply admired the atmosphere from afar.

Send us your responses here (Adam) and here (Brian) and we'll print some of the best ones in the coming days. Remember to list your team affiliation, your favorite Big Ten road stadium, and why you like it so much (100 words or less).

Big Ten's lunch links

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
12:00
PM ET
Back from vacation. Hope you had a great holiday weekend.
Welcome to watch list season!

Yep, college football's individual awards -- I believe we're up to around 257 of them now -- have begun the annual summer tradition of releasing their preseason watch lists. It's an exercise born from a different era, when fans weren't plugged into the game year round and players and teams needed preseason publicity. The lists also signify almost nothing, because Florida State's Jameis Winston wasn't on any watch lists last year, nor was Johnny Manziel in 2012. Being excluded from the preseason watch list doesn't prevent a player from winning the award, and being included means very little except that you had a good season last year or that your school's sports information department did a strong job lobbying for you.

That's a lengthy intro to explain why we won't be posting on every single watch list this summer. They'll mostly be relegated to links and mentions on our Twitter account. We will occasionally write about some that happen to be interesting or have notable snubs, etc.

Watch lists for two of the bigger awards came out on Monday, and since they are notable prizes, we thought they were worth passing along. They are the Maxwell Award, which is presented to the top player in the country, and the Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation's best defensive player. If nothing else, this gives you an idea of where players stand in public perception heading into the season.

Here are the Big Ten players on the Maxwell list:
And for the Bednarik:
Hope everyone enjoyed the Fourth of July weekend. The next holiday weekend is Labor Day, which will be filled by college football. Yay.

Of course, that means nonconference action for the Big Ten. And we've been ranking the 2014 Big Ten nonconference games from worst to first, taking into account quality of opponent, interest level and expected competitiveness of the game.

We presented our first (read: worst) batch of 14 games on Wednesday and the second, slightly better group on Thursday. Things really start to perk up with this third and penultimate crop of 2014 nonconference games. Which rank a little something like this:

No. 28: Maryland at South Florida, Sept. 6: The Bulls host Maryland three weeks before going to Madison. If they're not vastly improved from a year ago, it could be a rough September.

No. 27: Penn State vs. Temple, Nov. 15: Oddly timed mid-November matchup here. The Owls were just 2-10 a year ago, so it's possible nobody outside of Pennsylvania will be paying much attention.

No. 26: Indiana at Bowling Green, Sept. 13: The Hoosiers' easy dispatching of Bowling Green, which went 10-4 and won the MAC East last year, was one of their best wins of the 2013 season. The Falcons look for revenge at home.

No. 25: Wisconsin vs. Bowling Green, Sept. 20: Two straight weeks of Big Ten teams for Bowling Green. We should know in advance whether the Falcons are feisty enough to mount a challenge in Camp Randall.

No. 24: Maryland at Syracuse, Sept. 20: The Terps are in the Big Ten and Syracuse is in the ACC. Still seems very weird.

No. 23: Rutgers at Navy, Sept. 20: The Scarlet Knights may very well need to win this game to have any chance at getting bowl eligible.

No. 22: Rutgers at Washington State, Aug. 28: Rutgers goes on the road to face Mike Leach's Air Raid attack a few weeks before taking on Navy's option. You can't say Kyle Flood isn't challenging his defense this year.

No. 21: Northwestern vs. Northern Illinois, Sept. 6: Would have been nice to see these two butt heads when both were riding high, like in 2012. Still, it's a fun little matchup between two schools that are practically neighbors.

No. 20: Michigan vs. Appalachian State, Aug. 30: Maybe we're basing this ranking way too much on the 2007 upset. But just try to pretend like you don't want to watch this one.

No. 19: Northwestern vs. Cal, Aug. 30: Could be a lot of points and yards on the board again in this one, but Cal was truly awful last season.

No. 18: Purdue vs. Notre Dame (Indianapolis), Sept. 13: The Boilermakers played far and away their best game of the season last year vs. the Irish. Can they repeat that performance and make things interesting at Lucas Oil Stadium?

No. 17: Maryland vs. West Virginia, Sept. 13: It's also weird that West Virginia is in the Big 12 and Maryland is in the Big Ten. At least someone had the sense to keep this rivalry going through all the realignment.

No. 16: Nebraska at Fresno State, Sept. 13: Derek Carr might be gone, but the Bulldogs can still bite. Nebraska had better be on top of its game with this late kickoff on the road.

No. 15: Michigan vs. Utah, Sept. 20: The move to the Pac-12 hasn't quite worked out too well for the Utes. Winning in the Big House would be a way to get some momentum back for the program.
It's the dog days of summer, so we're desperate to see some football. Of course, not all football games are created equally.

As we've done in the past around here, we're ranking the 2014 Big Ten nonconference games from worst to first. We're taking into account quality of opponent, interest level and expected competitiveness of the game.

We presented our first (read: worst) batch of 14 games on Wednesday, and you'd really have to love your teams to be excited about some of those contests. Things perk up a little bit in this next round, though it still includes a whole lot of matchups against non-power conference opponents. Still: football!

Away we go:

No. 42: Michigan vs. Miami (Ohio), Sept. 13: The RedHawks went 0-12 last year. 'Nuff said.

No. 41: Minnesota vs. Eastern Illinois, Aug. 28: How did an FCS game escape our worst tier? Because the Panthers won 12 games a year ago and could once again have an explosive offense thanks to some FBS transfers. Gophers had better be wary.

No. 40: Purdue vs. Central Michigan, Sept. 6: It's no sure thing for the Boilermakers, but they need to win this one at home to keep fans interested.

No. 39: Iowa vs. Northern Iowa, Aug. 30: Northern Iowa last beat the Hawkeyes in 1898, but the Panthers did upset Iowa State last year. It's one of the few FCS games you could talk me into saving. Maybe.

No. 38: Minnesota vs. Middle Tennessee, Sept. 6: The Blue Raiders have built a solid program. Again, the Gophers just can't roll out of bed and expect to win this one.

No. 37: Nebraska vs. Florida Atlantic, Aug. 30: Already looking forward to the Carl Pelini jokes from Faux Pelini, but not much else with this game.

No. 36: Rutgers vs. Tulane, Sept. 27: The Scarlet Knights had better take care of business here, because there aren't many more games on the schedule where they'll be favored.

No. 35: Indiana vs. North Texas, Oct. 4: Don't sleep on the Mean Green, who won nine games a year ago. Still, on name value alone, I wouldn't exactly expect the "GameDay" crew in Bloomington for this one.

No. 34: Ohio State vs. Kent State, Sept. 13: Luckily, the Buckeyes' nonconference schedule has no true dog games on it this year. Though this one flirts with that status.

No. 33: Minnesota vs. San Jose State, Sept. 20: Thought the Spartans might pull the upset last year in Minneapolis, but the Gophers handled them just fine. SJSU comes to Minnesota after playing at Auburn this year. Paycheck time.

No. 32: Penn State vs. Akron, Sept. 6: The Zips are getting better, and Penn State will be returning home from its opener in Ireland. Potential trap game for the Lions.

No. 31: Iowa vs. Ball State, Sept. 6: The Cardinals won 10 games a year ago, and Iowa knows full well the dangers a good MAC team can present. Just sayin'.

No. 30: South Florida at Wisconsin, Sept. 27: The Bulls can't possibly be as bad as they were in a 2-10 season last year with all that Florida talent, can they? If so, this could be a serious beatdown.

No 29: Wyoming at Michigan State, Sept. 27: Craig Bohl made maybe the most interesting coaching move of the offseason in taking over the Cowboys. He's going to have his hands full in East Lansing.
It's the dog days of summer, so we're desperate to see some football. Of course, not all football games are created equally.

As we've done in the past around here, we're ranking the 2014 Big Ten nonconference games from worst to first. We're taking into account quality of opponent, interest level and expected competitiveness of the game while breaking these down. We'll do this in four batches of 14 games, which equals the total number of 56 nonconference matchups for the league this year. (Math!)

This first installment, as you'd expect, involves a whole lot of FCS and MAC action. We warn you: It won't be pretty. But at least it will be football.

No. 56: Rutgers vs. Howard, Sept. 6: The FCS Bison did go 6-6 last year, but come on. Playing HBCUs should never be on the Big Ten agenda, as this debacle proved a year ago.

No. 55: Indiana vs. Indiana State, Aug. 30: The Hoosiers hung 73 points last year on the home-state Sycamores, who went on to finish 1-11. Bet the over.

No. 54: Wisconsin vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 6: Giving yourself a little breather the week after playing LSU is understandable. The Badgers usually bludgeon overmatched teams at Camp Randall, and this should be no different.

No. 53: Purdue vs. Southern Illinois, Sept. 20: Should be a guaranteed win for the Boilers. Emphasis on should.

No. 52: Northwestern vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 20: If you're itching for more Leathernecks action after the Wisconsin game, you're in luck. And you're weird.

No. 51: Illinois vs. Youngstown State, Aug. 30: Maybe if Jim Tressel came back to coach the Penguins one last time ...

No. 50: Purdue vs. Western Michigan, Aug. 30: Yes, a matchup involving an FBS opponent beats out several FCS games. WMU went 1-11 last year, FYI.

No. 49: Maryland vs. James Madison, Aug. 30: Never forget this, Terps fans.

No. 48: Penn State vs. UMass, Sept. 20: The Minutemen are an FBS team. Not that you could really tell.

No. 47: Michigan State vs. Eastern Michigan, Sept. 20: EMU is an FBS team. Not that you could really tell.

No. 46: Nebraska vs. McNeese State, Sept. 6: Hey, the Cowboys did win 10 games last year and blew out South Florida. So that's something.

No. 45: Michigan State vs Jacksonville State, Aug. 29: The Gamecocks made the FCS quarterfinals last year and are ranked in the top 10 of some FCS polls. In case the Spartans are looking ahead to that Week 2 trip to Eugene.

No. 44: Illinois vs. Texas State, Sept. 20: The Bobcats are coming off a 6-6 season in the Sun Belt. Tim Beckman desperately needs to go 6-6.

No. 43: Illinois vs. Western Kentucky, Sept. 6: A great way to get halfway to 6-6 is by scheduling Texas State, Youngstown State and WKU.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 2, 2014
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Lots to digest here.

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