We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.
Here we go:
Best of the best: Maryland
The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.
Next up: Ohio State
It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.
Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota
"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.
The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.
Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.
Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan
Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.
Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
Best of the best: Wisconsin
The Badgers lose only safety Peniel Jean from a group that held opponents to a 49 percent completion rate, fourth nationally, and led the league at 28.4 percent on an opponent's third-down conversion rate. Back are Michael Caputo as a senior, the expected defensive leader, and Lubern Figaro, who started five games as a true freshman at safety, cornerbacks Darius Hillary, a second-team All-Big Ten choice, and Sojourn Shelton. A bit undersized at 5-foot-9, Shelton took a step back after a breakout freshman season with four interceptions in 2013. If he regains form, the Badgers can field a secondary without a weakness. And they may need it after key losing contributors among a front seven that helped bolster the pass-defense numbers last season with 37 sacks and the Big Ten’s highest sack rate at 9.7 percent.
Next up: Ohio State and Minnesota
The OSU secondary played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ January success, helping hold the likes of Amari Cooper and Marcus Mariota well under their respective averages. Cornerback Doran Grant is a big loss, but Eli Apple, after a solid true freshman season, should fill his spot, while sophomores Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell emerged as reliable figures at the safety positions. Gareon Conley and Damon Webb will battle in the spring to start at corner opposite Apple.
Meanwhile, at Minnesota, the secondary featured a foursome as strong as any group in the league last year. And all return but safety Cedric Thompson. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun form arguably the best pair of corners in the Big Ten. Safety Damarius Travis is back to start, likely to be joined by Antonio Johnson. Again, the backfield figures to rank as the Gophers’ defensive strength.
The Huskers ranked No. 2 nationally in opponent completion percentage and second in the Big Ten to Penn State in allowing 6.07 yards per passing attempt. Defensive co-captains Corey Cooper at safety and cornerback Josh Mitchell are gone, along with the whole coaching staff. New secondary coach Brian Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator at Maryland, inherits a group that returns safety Nate Gerry as a junior after he led the Big Ten with five interceptions in league play, and corner Daniel Davie. Just as important, the Huskers get versatile defender Charles Jackson back from injury and safety LeRoy Jackson, slated to start last year, back from a suspension. Nickel Byerson Cockrell also returns, giving the Huskers an experienced group.
Problem for a contender: Michigan State
Dare we say that the Spartans’ pass defense could be a weakness in 2015? Several MSU foes, in fact, penetrated the “No Fly Zone” last year, though MSU opponents threw on 60.2 percent of their plays, the highest figure nationally. The Spartans lose All-Big Ten cornerback Trae Waynes and star safety Kurtis Drummond. Receiver Tony Lippett, who doubled as a corner late in the season, is gone, too, leaving safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks, who lost his job in November, with experience. Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox appear to own the inside track to start in 2015. There’s plenty of youth on hand also through which Harlon Barnett, promoted to co-defensive coordinator, can search this spring.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.
Thanks BuckeyeNation for supporting the Cruise to beat cancer raising over $2 million!! Back on land-on way home.— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) February 25, 2015
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
Best of the best: Michigan State
Shilique Calhoun's return guarantees the Spartan Dawgs will retain their bite up front. Starting defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also will be back, and Malik McDowell could be ready to take a leap forward after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Michigan State does have to replace four-year starter Marcus Rush, but it has Demetrius Cooper groomed to take on a much larger role. This is a deep and talented bunch anchored by a potential NFL first-rounder in Calhoun.
Next up: Ohio State
You could consider the Spartans and Buckeyes Nos. 1 and 1A here. Ohio State still has reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa at defensive end, along with Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle. But the Buckeyes did lose All-America defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive end Steve Miller, and they weren't very deep at the position last season. Incoming true freshmen Dre'Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell could be asked to contribute right away at end, and the hope is someone from a group of redshirt sophomores -- Donovan Munger, Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle -- can move in next to Washington.
Sleepers: Michigan and Minnesota
The Wolverines replace both of their starting defensive ends from last season in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, though Clark was dismissed from the team before the season ended. Michigan should be in very good shape at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, and it could be Taco Charlton's time to shine at defensive end. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had players on the front four gain weight this offseason in anticipation of possibly some more 3-4 looks this fall.
Minnesota lost two starters in tackle Cam Botticelli and Michael Amaefula, but remember the line dealt with some early injuries last season and still excelled. Defensive end Theiren Cockran returns, along with promising rising sophomore Steven Richardson at tackle, while Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith are back from their injuries. The Gophers like their depth here, too.
Problem for contenders: Nebraska and Wisconsin
These may not be problems as much as question marks, but both the Huskers and Badgers need some new players to step up this spring.
Nebraska looks all set in the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, but Randy Gregory's departure leaves a huge hole at defensive end. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish return starting experience there, but they won't remind anyone of Gregory nor scare many opposing offensive tackles the same way he did.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, must replace two members of its three-man starting front in departing seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg gained a lot of experience, but the Badgers will probably need a young guy like Alec James to improve this spring to solidify the entire unit.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.
What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.
Q: So it's the birth of a new team?
Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.
And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.
Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.
2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?
Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."
Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."
But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.
You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.
Around the league ...
- Pat Fitzgerald gave a preview of what to expect at Northwestern's spring practice.
- Michigan State is a program about to decline? Mark Dantonio scoffs at that notion.
- Purdue's Gerad Parker has returned to his passion: coaching receivers.
- The salary pool for Wisconsin assistants will see a modest increase.
- Urban Meyer and the Ohio State cruise ship finally returned to port last night.
- James Franklin will be the headliner on Penn State's coaches caravan. A recruit received 107 letters from the Nittany Lions.
- Previewing the position battle at cornerback for Indiana this spring.
- Former Huskers have praise for new Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart.
- Athlon's list of running backs on the rise includes several Big Ten names.
Meyer is among 2,500 passengers, according to the Columbus Dispatch, who are stuck outside the Port of Tampa as dense fog delays the end of their cruise vacation.
“We are good. No worries,” Meyer wrote in a text to the newspaper.
The Florida fog is part of the same weather pattern that has brought unseasonable cold to much of the United States over the past week.
Meyer participated in the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, a fundraiser for the Urban & Shelley Meyer Fund for Cancer Research. Meyer said in his text to The Dispatch that they raised “upward of $2 million” for the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Meyer’s late father, Bud Meyer, was a bladder cancer survivor. His mother, Gisela Meyer, and Shelley Meyer’s stepmother, Marlene Mather, battled breast cancer.
The vessel is among more than a dozen, according to this report, kept at bay out of safety concerns voiced by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Many former players are aboard the Royal Caribbean ship, which was due back in Tampa on Monday.
Dustin Fox, an ex-Ohio State defensive back who works as a radio host in Cleveland, posted a photo to Instagram of the ship’s circuitous route in the Gulf of Mexico over the past two days.
The fog is forecasted to lift Tuesday night, clearing a path for the ship’s return to port.
Meanwhile, Michigan is opening spring practice. We’ll let the Wolverines craft the proper response for that contrast.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:
Best of the best: Michigan State
The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.
Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.
At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.
The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.
Problem for a contender: Penn State
It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.
We've reached the final day of our project ranking each of the 65 college football jobs at the Power 5 level.
The central question to file away: If every Power 5 job came open tomorrow, which would be the most desirable? On the other side, which would be least appealing? (And everything in between.)
So who's it going to be? Which program will be deemed our No. 1 gig? Alabama? Texas? USC? Another school?
Though every coach weighs things differently -- that's why it's such a subjective, hot-button topic for debate -- the criteria are roughly the same.
The list includes factors such as location, administrative stability, support from those bosses, facilities, recruiting base, path to conference titles/playoff, sense of tradition, fervor of fan base, too much fervor from a fan base, etc.
We hope and believe we have provided an intelligent and accurate overview of the jobs in college football, from worst to best. We've also received feedback from various coaches and industry sources to help shape these rankings.
Tier 4: The Not-quites
Established brands in their respective leagues -- but is there a certain ceiling that will stop these programs from reaching the top shelf?
Just a couple of months ago, this job might have been a tick or two higher. But Gary Andersen bolting for Oregon State -- the No. 50 program on this list -- shined a light on potential administrative woes in Madison. Andersen complained that assistants were not being paid market value and that an unnecessary admission standard was hampering his ability to get in even marginal academic risks. "We have no speed," Andersen told me in late November. "Our fastest players are walk-ons -- and Melvin Gordon. Thank God for Melvin Gordon." His successor, Paul Chryst, was at Wisconsin previously as an assistant, so he surely understands the pluses and minuses of being the Badgers' head man. He's not entering as blindly as Andersen, coming from Utah State, had. Could the situation be better? Probably. Is it as dire as Andersen made it seem? No, probably not. Look at the teams Wisconsin is being asked to compete against in the Big Ten West. Do Iowa or Nebraska have an inherent competitive advantage, really? Even last season, despite all the "adversity," Wisconsin still won the division. (Thank God for Melvin Gordon?)
The program has a solid reputation nationally, built up for years thanks in large part to the work of former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez. There were some questions about whether Alvarez's larger-than-life presence was part of the reason for Andersen's departure, but Andersen told me point-blank in November that Alvarez had been a good boss. Camp Randall Stadium is one of the better home environments in the Big Ten. Now nearly 100 years old, it has held up well; a $100 million project completed in 2005 has helped keep it modern. The coaches' and players' facilities have seen some upgrades in recent years. Last but not least: Madison is one of the better college towns in the country, so long as it's warm. If the administration proves to be a bit more flexible, understanding that it needs to keep with the times in college football, this could easily move back toward being a top-15 job.
Pass-catchers were largely overshadowed by big-name running backs in the conference last season. There are a handful of receivers with star power returning in 2015, but the strongest units in the Big Ten next fall will thrive on their ability to spread the wealth to a balanced corps of playmakers in the passing game.
Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State
The Nittany Lions return DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, both of whom looked to be headed toward 1,000-yard seasons in 2014 before an inexperienced line and struggling running game grinded Penn State’s offense to a halt. Tight end Adam Breneman missed all of his sophomore year recovering from surgery, but should be one of the conference’s best tight ends if he stays healthy in 2015. Depth will come from sophomore Saeed Blacknall and three freshmen ranked among the top 100 receivers in this year’s recruiting class.
Ohio State loses deep-ball specialist Devin Smithbut has the playmakers to replace him. Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall will once again be standout weapons in the passing game. The late addition of incoming freshman K.J. Hill, who literally broke a defender’s ankle last fall, provides the potential for another young contributor.
Next up: Mike Riley inherits a capable duo at wide receiver with a pair of former All-Big Ten Freshmen. Junior Jordan Westerkamp caught 44 passes for 747 yards and flashed some highlight-reel ability during his sophomore season. De'Mornay Pierson-El made his biggest impact as a rookie in the return game, but should be a big part of the Cornhuskers’ offense in 2015. Losing standout Kenny Bell to the NFL is the only thing keeping this group from being at the top of the list.
Sleepers: Illinois and Rutgers
Illini freshman Mike Dudek had a standout rookie season of his own. He had six touchdowns and 1,038 receiving yards last fall. Along with seniors Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson, who both had more than 40 receptions last fall, quarterback Wes Lunt has the targets to sneak up on a few teams next fall.
Rutgers lacks depth is the passing game, but may have the Big Ten’s top returning receiver in Leonte Carroo (55 catches, 1,086 yards, 10 TDs in 2014). Carroo’s decision to put the NFL on hold for another year will be a major help for the Scarlet Knights, who lost junior tight end Tyler Kroft and still need time to develop the rest of a young, but potentially talented group of receivers.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
The Badgers finished near the bottom of the league last fall with less than 150 passing yards per game. To call their pass attack a “problem” last year wouldn’t be totally accurate. It was more of an unnecessary appendage with Melvin Gordon running wild. Gordon is gone and so are three starting offensive linemen in Paul Chryst’s first season back in Madison. The running game will still be strong, but the lack of a passing threat could be a bigger issue in 2015. The Badgers need to find more support for former walk-on Alex Erickson, the only returning receiver with more than 14 catches last year.
Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?
The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.
Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.
Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.
And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.
Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.
He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.
Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.
The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.
Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.
Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.
And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.
Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
- Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.
- Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.
- Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
- Michigan features a bigger backfield as spring practice opens. How will Harbaugh's big personality impact the Wolverines?
- A few Northwestern players decide to support their basketball team -- in full pads.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes had a great day at the NFL combine.
- Ex-Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon mmight land in the first round of the NFL draft.
- Yet another reason for the Hawkeyes to be proud of Hayden Fry's contributions to Iowa.
- The coach of Ohio State running back recruit Mike Weber feels much better now about Urban Meyer.
- A review of Minnesota's three former stars at combine.
- Five players with the most to gain for Nebraska this spring.
- As the Big Ten mulls the eligibility of true freshmen, here are five rookie performances that helped Rutgers.
- Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is headed to UCLA after one season at West Virginia.
Easiest Path To The 2015 College Football Playoff
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TBD Kent State Illinois TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Wisconsin Alabama