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.

 
Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and OSU might be the Big Ten favorite, but don't forget about Mark Dantonio and MSU.
Let's get this out of the way first. I don't begrudge anyone for listing Ohio State as the 2014 Big Ten favorite.

The Buckeyes are 16-0 in regular-season Big Ten games under coach Urban Meyer, and 24-0 in the regular season overall the past two seasons. Despite Wisconsin's surge in 2010 and 2011 and Penn State's in 2005 and 2008, Ohio State has carried the Big Ten banner since winning the league's last national title in 2002. Other than the 2011 season, when the program lost its coach and its quarterback late in the spring, Ohio State has been the team to beat in this league.

What bothers me is the tone about the Buckeyes and this season's Big Ten title race. I've been on several radio shows in recent weeks that have presented the conference as one where Ohio State is 50 yards ahead and everyone else is trying to catch up. Some playoff projections list Ohio State as the Big Ten's only candidate. Bovada's futures list Ohio State with 1/1 odds to win the Big Ten and 2/5 odds to win the East Division. That is an overwhelming endorsement for Meyer's crew.

I'm used to the Big Ten being framed in this way. In other seasons, it has made complete sense. It doesn't make sense entering the 2014 campaign.

The Big Ten conversation can start with Ohio State, but it also must include Michigan State, the team that outclassed Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and went on to win the Rose Bowl against Stanford. The Spartans have earned a spot in the conversation.

Several other teams could catch, and possibly overtake, the Buckeyes and Spartans by early December, but right now, it's a two-team discussion.

So why are the Buckeyes dominating so much of the preseason chatter?

It takes a long time to change perception in college football, and the default perception in the Big Ten goes like this: Ohio State, canyon, everyone else. Michigan State last season was the Big Ten's most dominant team in recent memory -- the Spartans beat all nine of their league opponents by 10 points or more -- but the sense is MSU cannot sustain such excellence.

And why not? Well, the Spartans lost some key pieces from the league's top defense, including All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.

But so did Ohio State. The Buckeyes actually lose more of their core: four starting offensive linemen, running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby.

Both teams say goodbye to quality offensive linemen but bring back proven quarterbacks in Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Connor Cook (Michigan State). The Buckeyes likely have the single best position group between the teams -- and possibly in the entire Big Ten -- with their defensive line, but MSU's defense, with a multiyear stretch of elite performance, looks more complete. The Spartans, who lose only one key skill player on offense -- wide receiver Bennie Fowler -- seem to have fewer question marks on that side of the ball.

Both coaching staffs are excellent. Meyer added two quality defensive assistants this winter in Larry Johnson and Chris Ash. Michigan State retained arguably the nation's top defensive assistant in coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Both teams should thrive on special teams with standout punters Mike Sadler (MSU) and Cameron Johnston (OSU).

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
12:00
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Finally, we will determine what is the most powerful country in the world: the Netherlands or Argentina.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Rutgers and Maryland have officially been Big Ten members for a week now, and that brings about an interesting dynamic with Penn State's conference slate. In past years, the Nittany Lions' primary conference rival was Ohio State. So today's Take Two topic: Who exactly is the Nittany Lions' main conference rival right now?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The debate about Penn State's top Big Ten rival isn't a new one and hasn't produced an obvious answer. It goes along with the sentiment of some Nittany Lions fans that the school never has been fully integrated into the Big Ten. The league's expansion with Rutgers and Maryland took place in part because of Penn State, which became vulnerable after the ACC added both Pitt and Syracuse. The additions ensure Penn State is no longer a geographic outlier and provide PSU fans with two convenient road destinations.

But rivalries don't spawn merely out of convenience. They're fueled by competitiveness, too. Unless Maryland and Rutgers move up in class, or Penn State moves down in class, I don't see a true rivalry developing. Penn State is 35-1-1 all-time against Maryland and 22-2 all-time against Rutgers. The Terrapins or Scarlet Knights need to beat Penn State sometime in the next three years for any real rivalry to develop. They will compete a lot on the recruiting trail, especially with James Franklin's ties to Maryland and Washington D.C. Franklin's bluster about dominating the region won't sit well in either neighboring state. Yet again, it comes down to winning games on the field.

I still think Penn State's biggest league rival is Ohio State. Sure, Ohio State always will have Michigan and might not cross paths as much with Penn State on the recruiting trail as Maryland or Rutgers will. But the two teams are on more equal footing and have played many more memorable games in recent years. Penn State is 3-6 against Ohio State since 2005, the best record of any Big Ten team against the Buckeyes during the span and far better than Ohio State's chief rival, Michigan, has fared. The Lions scored wins at Ohio Stadium in both 2008 and 2011 -- the Buckeyes have lost only two other Big Ten home games since the 2004 season.

There might not be a Terrelle Pryor to stir the pot, but Ohio State and Penn State undoubtedly will compete for more elite prospects as long as Franklin and Urban Meyer are coaching the teams. Plus, longtime Lions assistant Larry Johnson moved to the Buckeyes staff in the offseason after being passed over again for the top job at PSU.

Is the PSU-OSU rivalry ideal? No. It might take some time for Penn State to match Ohio State's talent and depth again, but I like the ingredients here more than the likely lopsided series with either Maryland or Rutgers.

Take 2: Josh Moyer

You make some fair points, Adam, especially about the need for competition. Penn State’s last head coach, Bill O’Brien, said as much last October: “In order to have a rivalry, you have to win,” he said. I agree. Of course, you point to the Nittany Lions being competitive with Ohio State -- and that’s where we start to diverge. The Buckeyes have taken four of the last five matchups, including handing Penn State its worst loss in 114 years last season. So, how many Big Ten fans are really expecting the Nittany Lions to win this year? Fewer, I imagine, than in those Rutgers and Maryland contests. I know I’m not the only person who feels that way about OSU. Here’s the rest of that O’Brien quote, one that came days after that 63-14 thumping: “We’ve lost two years in a row to [Ohio State]. They have one rival, Michigan, and that’s the way it goes.”

Staying competitive goes a long way in maintaining a rivalry, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only ingredient in creating one. And that’s why I think Maryland and Rutgers are Penn State’s new main rivals. Franklin threw down the gauntlet two months ago when he talked about dominating New Jersey and Maryland in recruiting and said, in hyperbolic fashion, “They might as well shut them down because they don’t have a chance.” Countered Randy Edsall: “Talk is cheap.” You can bet the Terrapins and the Scarlet Knights aren’t going to forget about that slight. This is the stuff rivalries are made of. How many Penn State fans forgot about that 2012 slight from Illinois, right after Tim Beckman tried to poach players? Schadenfreude was a real thing when PSU beat up on the Fighting Illini that season.

But, even without all that, you still have the geography factor. The campuses of Rutgers and Maryland are actually closer to some Lions fans than Penn State’s actual campus. Live in York, Pa.? UMD is a closer drive by about 30 minutes. Staying in Philadelphia? RU is two hours closer. Ask any Penn State fan whom their top rival is, and I bet most would still say Pittsburgh (Exhibit A). That proximity means something. And I think that sentiment about Pitt shows that meeting recently isn’t a prerequisite to being rivals.

Sure, a lot’s left to be written here. But Maryland-Penn State and Rutgers-Penn State are both budding rivalries. They’re on their way up; Rutgers is already planning to set up an auxiliary press box for PSU’s visit because of the demand. Ohio State-Penn State? Maybe in the longer term, Adam, that can return to something great. But that matchup is on its way down. So let the new rivalries begin.
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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: The word freak purposely doesn't get thrown around a lot in recruiting circles, because it can quickly become cliché. But after dominating during the SPARQ testing Tuesday, there should be no problem giving that label to five-star defensive end Josh Sweat. Plus, an Alabama commitment made the play of the day with a one-handed catch.

video

ESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) took time out to talk recruiting and more with WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz on Tuesday at The Opening.
Just before the holiday last week, we took a look at some Big Ten units that will be under pressure to perform this season. Now we want your opinion on which groups have the most riding on them.

Cue David Bowie as we list the nominees under the most pressure:
    SportsNation

    Which Big Ten unit is under the most pressure in 2014?

    •  
      53%
    •  
      21%
    •  
      9%
    •  
      14%
    •  
      3%

    Discuss (Total votes: 6,278)

     
  • Michigan's offensive line: The Wolverines allowed 36 sacks and averaged just 3.3 yards per rush last fall, and that was with future NFL draft picks Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Michigan needs a lot of players to grow up quickly on the O-line to have any chance of competing for a division title this season.
  • Ohio State's secondary: The Buckeyes' pass defense collapsed at the end of last season and lost top cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL. New secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is bringing a more aggressive mindset while relying on young, athletic players like Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows.
  • Penn State's receivers: Who will replace Allen Robinson? That's a major question in State College. Sophomore Geno Lewis and true freshmen DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin are among the top candidates.
  • Wisconsin's quarterbacks: Incumbent starter Joel Stave is a lightning rod for fans, and he's not guaranteed to keep his job over Tanner McEvoy. Whoever earns the nod must help improve the Badgers' passing game -- and deal with LSU's defense in the opener.
  • Illinois' defensive line: The Illini were one of the worst teams in the country at stopping the run last season, giving up 238 yards per game on the ground. Junior college transfers Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu are expected to help, but if things don't turn around quickly, this team is going to struggle again.

Which unit is under the most pressure to succeed this year? Vote now in our poll.
As the Big Ten season draws near, more predictions and projections are sure to come from fans and experts alike. Maybe Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone will make the difference and it will repeat as champions. Or maybe Ohio State’s high-powered offense will propel it to the title game.

There are plenty of angles here. But how do we know what’s most important for a team to win the conference championship? What does make a Big Ten champ?

We decided to take a look at the last decade of Big Ten champions to find out, statistically, what all those winners had in common. We looked at 20 statistical categories to find patterns or similarities, to discover what's historically been important. Did sacks allowed have any bearing on winning? Run defense? What about time of possession or penalties?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesRunning the ball and stopping the run will undoubtedly be important to Mark Dantonio's Michigan State team as it plans to defend its Big Ten championship.
Statistical categories such as as tackles-for-loss on defense and even third-down conversion percentage were mostly all over the map. Sure, some teams finished near the top of the nation there, but just as many were mediocre or worse. Having a great red-zone offense didn’t exactly hurt, for example, but it wasn’t a prerequisite, unlike a few other numbers. (The last two champs, Michigan State and Wisconsin, didn’t even crack the top 60 in that category.)

To make sure the best teams’ numbers factored into this, we included the Ohio State and Penn State teams that later vacated their titles. Counting those teams, 15 champs – shared titles included, obviously – were examined. And here’s what we learned:

Run, run, run the ball – and forget about the pass: No passing offense from the last 15 Big Ten champions ranked nationally within the top 35, but 11 of the champs’ rushing offenses ranked within the top 30. Let that sink in for a moment, because that’s quite a contrast. As a matter of fact, more than half the time, the B1G champion's passing game wasn’t even above average, as it ranked below No. 60. So, to win that title, forget the air – it’s all about the ground.

Defense > offense: Apparently there’s some truth to the saying that “defense wins championships,” at least in the Big Ten, where defense appears to be much more important. It’s not that above-average offenses were rare; they weren’t. But the median champion’s total offense was ranked No. 46 nationally. The total defense? No. 12. One-third of champions’ defenses were ranked within the top five and 13 of 15 were ranked within the top 20. No team that won an outright championship finished worse than No. 15 in total defense or No. 17 in scoring defense.

Control the turnover battle – and the clock: This one shouldn’t come as a shock, but it was surprising to see the extent of just how important these two elements were. Only two champs – Ohio State in 2005 and 2007 – were able to win a title without a positive turnover margin. More than half of the champs (8 of 15) ranked nationally within the top 15 of turnover differential. In time of possession, every Big Ten title winner has controlled the clock since 2006. Is that a coincidence? You be the judge. But, since 2007, all but one champ has also ranked within the top 25 nationally by averaging more than 31 minutes, 30 seconds of possession each game.

Run defense > pass defense: If you continue the logic of that first bolded point, this makes sense. If championship teams are defined by great rushing games, it stands to reason that great rush defenses are paramount to counter that. The numbers bear that out; in the Big Ten, a strong front seven seems to trump a strong secondary any day. Eight Big Ten champs had rushing defenses that rank within the top 10 nationally, while half that number could say the same about their pass defense. Again, that’s not to say pass defenses aren’t important. But of the last 15 Big Ten champs, 12 had a better run defense than pass defense, and two of those had both their pass and run defenses rank within six spots of one another. Wisconsin’s 2011 team was the lone statistical anomaly; it ranked No. 60 in run defense and No. 4 in pass defense.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:00
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Happy Video Games Day. If anybody needs me, I'll be in front of a Galaga machine.
 
LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. -- There was plenty of recruiting news that came out of Monday's reporting day for The Opening. One of the prospects who shared the latest was ESPN 300 No. 39 Malik Jefferson.


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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.
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LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. -- ESPN 300 offensive tackle Andre James appeared calm when he arrived at The Opening, which was to be expected, as the No. 165 overall prospect recently came to a decision regarding his college choice. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman narrowed his list to Ohio State, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC and will announce where he will attend during the event.


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