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.
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.
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%
    •  
      13%
    •  
      4%

    Discuss (Total votes: 6,161)

     
  • 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
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?
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).

CFB Future Power Rankings

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
3:20
PM ET

CFB Future Power Ranks10 future stars | Chat wrap | 2013 FPR

It's Insider's second go-round projecting college football's next three years in our Future Power Rankings.

What did we learn from our first edition? For one, teams can make a substantive move in just a year's time. Just look at Auburn, which jumped from 23rd to fifth after a run to the championship game. USC, now with coaching stability, made the biggest leap (25th to sixth). Oklahoma, UCLA, FSU and Baylor were among other risers, and you'll soon read why.

On the other side, we were high a year ago on Florida and Michigan. Oops. The Gators' injury-plagued 4-8 season dropped them from No. 4 to No. 14, while the Wolverines, who lost five of their last six games, fell from fifth to 20th. We know Will Muschamp's job is in danger, but is that an omen for Brady Hoke's future in Ann Arbor?

Alabama is again our No. 1 team, but with two losses to end the season, its lead shrank. Is that a subtle signal that the Tide might have peaked under Nick Saban?

We'll examine those topics and more in the Future Power Rankings.

Here's how we compiled it: Our panel -- myself, Brad Edwards, Brock Huard, Tom Luginbill and Mark Schlabach -- provided 1-10 ratings in five different categories that we found to be comprehensive in determining current positioning, as well as a projection for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Here are the top 25 college football teams over the next three years:


  • 1
Alabama Crimson Tide
SEC FPR RANK: 1

The bar graphs reflect the average points given by the voters for each category. Category averages are weighted by importance to generate overall score.

Coaching: Saban did not receive a perfect 10, as he did a year ago. Maybe the one panelist who gave him a nine dinged him for how he managed the final second of the Iron Bowl.

But seriously, Saban is still well ahead of No. 2 Urban Meyer (9.2) and No. 3 Bill Snyder (9.0). (Have to appreciate that Snyder gets that kind of love, even if K-State didn't break the Top 25.)

Edwards thinks 2014 is a big year for Saban because it will show whether he can adapt his defense to better handle tempo offenses. Look at how Saban's defenses mightily struggled last year against not only Texas A&M, but also Auburn and Oklahoma.

"You put them all together and you realize, 'You know what, Alabama might have an issue with this,'" Edwards said. "I happen to believe Saban and [defensive coordinator] Kirby Smart have done enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let's see what they can come up with this year before I decide the dynasty is over. Saban is now recruiting to find those types of players [to defend tempo offenses]."

As for the best coach in the state?

"I want to see Gus Malzahn beat Nick Saban one more time before I say he's a better coach," Edwards said, "which is a conclusion a lot of people are already making."

Current talent: There are more positional questions than in the past few years, especially the offensive line and cornerback spots. Rival coaches are even rumbling about it. "I don't know about them," one SEC coordinator said. But do not be fooled for an instant into thinking the Tide have suddenly become as barren as a bachelor's refrigerator in terms of talent.

Bama still has the top running back group in the country with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who was a bright spot in the otherwise drab Sugar Bowl performance. The time could be now for LB Reuben Foster and FS Landon Collins to shine on defense. MLB Trey DePriest will be the defense's rock.

And what about QB Jake Coker? His old coach at FSU, Jimbo Fisher, believes Coker is capable, which is why Coker nearly beat out last year's Heisman Trophy winner to start at FSU.

Recruiting: This is why Alabama earned association with the word "dynasty" -- it started winning almost every major recruiting battle, and the program became the closest thing there is on the planet to the NFL's minor league system. It has not dipped, and there's no reason to believe it will as long as Saban is around; he will not let it slide.

Title path:  It's going to happen, and it could happen this year: The SEC is going to knock itself out of the playoff. The strength of the top half of the league could turn out to be a bad thing in some seasons.

The Tide are regularly part of a kickoff game of some kind, playing the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech or West Virginia, but the nonconference slate is typically manageable. The conference schedule always works for and against the SEC. For the Tide, Auburn is the new-slash-old menace.

The rating suggests that it isn't the ideal road to the playoff, but it should not be preventive for a power program such as Alabama.

Program power: Like the coaching category, Bama still received four 10s and a nine. The takeaway: It's hard to remain perfect.

"We all know that every dynasty comes to an end, but when you look back on every dynasty, you know where the turning point was," Edwards said. Will we say it was the Iron Bowl and Sugar Bowl, perhaps? "I think what you have is a lot of people trying to be the first one to predict the end of the dynasty," Edwards said. "They want to be the ones to say they didn't miss it. I think they're jumping the gun a little bit."

Which is why Alabama is still No. 1. But one program is making up ground in a hurry ...

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.

Another sign of the impending season arrived today with the start of the preseason award watch lists. These largely meaningless lists began with two of the biggies, the Maxwell (nation's top player) and Bednarik (nation's top defender), both of which included groups of Big Ten players. With 76 names on the Bednarik list and 74 on the Maxwell list, some are wondering if anyone didn't make the rundowns. But believe it or not, there are some possible snubs.

Today's Take Two topic: Which Big Ten players could have been included on the Maxwell and Bednarik watch lists?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

Let's begin with the Maxwell. Most of the reasonable Big Ten options are covered here (and some less than reasonable ones), but Indiana running back Tevin Coleman deserves some love. Coleman might have to lap the field to actually win the Maxwell, but you can't tell me there are 70 better offensive players than the Hoosiers junior. He's not Melvin Gordon, but his statistics in only nine games -- 7.3 yards-per-carry average, three rushes of 60 yards or more, five rushes of 50 yards or more, 141.7 all-purpose yards per game -- are reminiscent of the Badgers star. Coleman will get more touches this season as Stephen Houston departs, and he plays behind one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines.

Indiana ultimately needs to upgrade its defense to gain national hype for its team and its individual stars. But if Coleman builds on 2013, he'll be noticed. He scored at least once in every game he played last season and contributes in a variety of ways.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Mike Hull is underappreciated nationally.
The Big Ten's Bednarik contention is heavy with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan players. Although I still need to see more from Michigan's Frank Clark, I have no major issues with these inclusions. But I'm going to stump for Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton and Penn State linebacker Mike Hull. Wisconsin recorded only nine interceptions last season, but four came from Shelton, who entered the starting lineup as a true freshman and led the team in both picks and passes defended (11). The Badgers lose three NFL draft picks on defense but retain a potential big-time playmaker in Shelton.

Penn State linebackers seldom struggle to gain the spotlight, but Hull, a fifth-year senior, has gone under the radar a bit, in part because of injury. He's one of the league's most experienced defenders and has been labeled the quarterback of the defense by new coordinator Bob Shoop. New coach James Franklin came away impressed with Hull this spring. A breakout season could be on tap, and if so, Hull will be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors and potentially more.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

First off, let's put the word "snub" in quotes. We must acknowledge that these preseason watch lists are outdated and silly, and they really mean nothing when it comes to the final awards. And it has been the case in the past that the reason a notable player didn't "make" the list was because his school simply forgot to nominate him.

But it's early July, and we need something to talk about, right? I thought the Maxwell list did a pretty good job including the biggest offensive stars in the Big Ten. I agree with Adam that Coleman has a chance to put up some major numbers, along with quarterback Nate Sudfeld and receiver Shane Wynn. But Indiana has to get itself on the national radar before its players reap the rewards.

What about Iowa's Brandon Scherff? We already know he's "a freak," and he's a likely first-round pick and a possible All-American next year. Offensive linemen never win and rarely even get mentioned for these awards, and that's a shame.

The Bednarik list is exhaustive. As much as I like players such as Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond and Penn State's Jordan Lucas, I can't envision any scenario in which they actually win this award. But if there were players missing from this list for the Big Ten, I think it's a pair of defensive ends: Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Monroe had 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in the ACC last year, and it wouldn't require much improvement for him to be among the national leaders in those categories this season. Similarly, Cockran is a gifted athlete who had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2013.

Both are dark horse candidates for Big Ten defensive player of the year, which should qualify them for the Bednarik watch list. Not that anyone should lose much sleep over it.

Big Ten's lunch links

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
12:00
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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.

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