You can have all the pieces of a great team, but if you're lacking a standout quarterback, it's going to be tough to win big in college football.

Quarterback is a position that likely needs to improve throughout the Big Ten in order for the league to start winning championships. But the good news there are some stars returning at the position in 2014. Taking a page from our ACC blog friends, we're previewing all the positions this preseason, and none are more important than this one:

Best of the best: Ohio State

Several teams return productive starters under center, which is a good thing for the league. But no one else has a player quite like the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller. The senior is coming off two straight Big Ten offensive player of the year awards, and is now in his third season of the same system under Tom Herman and Urban Meyer -- he should feel extremely comfortable. There is some slight concern about his offseason shoulder surgery, which left him sitting out of spring drills, and an inexperienced offensive line. But Miller has showed the ability to make magic practically on his own, and few are better in the clutch. His absence this spring meant important reps for youngsters Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who would have to step in this season if anything happens to Miller.

Next up: Penn State

Christian Hackenberg passed for 2,955 yards as an 18-year-old true freshman and led impressive comebacks against Illinois and Michigan. The Nittany Lions' young star does have a new coaching staff and system and won't get to enjoy the talents of Allen Robinson any more, but his talent is immense. Penn State and Ohio State aren't the only teams in great shape at quarterback, though. Michigan State's Connor Cook was the MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl and should continue to improve. Michigan's Devin Gardner finished second in the league in total offense in 2013 despite little help from the run game. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has the job to himself after Tre Roberson's transfer and could easily surpass 3,000 yards in the Hoosiers' prolific system. Jake Rudock is a solid leader for Iowa who should have better weapons surrounding him this fall.

Possible sleeper: Maryland

C.J. Brown is a fifth-year senior entering his third year of starting after an injury cut down his 2012 campaign. He needs to stay healthy and improve on his 58.9 completion percentage from 2013. But with arguably the best pair of wideouts in the Big Ten at his disposal in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Brown has a chance to put up some strong numbers in his first go-around in this league. Keep an eye also on Illinois and probable starter Wes Lunt; Bill Cubit's offense helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's surprise leading passer a year ago.

Problem for a contender: Nebraska

Problem is far too strong of a word here, but the Huskers don't have a sure thing at quarterback. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a good leader and owns a burning desire to improve, so there's reason to be optimistic that the sophomore will handle the job just fine. Still, he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes last season, had eight interceptions against nine touchdown passes and wasn't the running threat that Taylor Martinez used to be. Wisconsin has its own quarterback issues, but Joel Stave -- the subject of much offseason hand-wringing -- is far more proven than Armstrong. Nebraska will need solid quarterback play in early tests against Fresno State and Miami (Fla.).

Big Ten lunch links

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
12:00
PM ET
This comment is a week late but needs to be said: Joey Chestnut is an American treasure.
  • Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck visited the Purdue campus for a youth camp and met with some of the current Boilermakers quarterbacks, one of whom admitted to taking a "selfie" with Luck in the background.
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark
Earlier this week, we offered an overview on the criteria that makes up the average Big Ten champion. So, naturally, we thought we'd take a look at how that criteria applies to teams this season.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the makeup of conference champions, so this isn't meant to be a variable-free breakdown. Still, it should add to the debate on just who has the right stuff to be the next B1G winner. And it'll be interesting to see how this ends up applying to the 2014 season.

So, without further delay, here are four criteria that have been historically important for Big Ten champions -- and how they apply to teams entering the 2014 season:

Criteria 1: Rank within top 40 of scoring defense

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers
On the fence: Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin
Does meet criteria: Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State

This criteria has been mandatory for the last 13 teams that went on to win the Big Ten title, so it seemed appropriate to list this first. And it was easy to immediately cross off a few teams. Lest you think some were eliminated too quickly, rest assured, all the teams that didn't meet the above criteria didn't meet at least three total criteria anyway. Iowa, which is one of four teams to satisfy this, might seem like it belongs in the middle -- but Kirk Ferentz usually finds a way to get this done, even when he's forced to rebuild. The Hawkeyes satisfied this criteria in six of the past seven seasons, and they have a relatively easy schedule this year.

Criteria 2: Rank within the top 30 of rush defense

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes were the only team to meet all four criteria that have been historically important for Big Ten champions.
Doesn't meet criteria: Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue
On the fence: Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin
Does meet criteria: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers

Eleven of the past 13 champs met this criteria, and more than half ranked within the top 10. So, needless to say, this is a pretty important element. And the Gophers simply have too much working against them. Not only do they no longer have DT Ra'Shede Hageman, who had the ability to take over a game, but Minnesota hasn't met this criteria in a decade. It's hard to see it improving that much over last season. As far as some teams stuck in the middle, Wisconsin and Iowa were on the verge of being in that undesirable "doesn't meet criteria" category, especially with two defensive rebuilding efforts underway, but both teams at least met this requirement last season and boast some talent. Which brings us to ... Rutgers? Yes, it might seem a little out of place with three of the better conference teams. But Big Ten fans might be surprised with the strength of this defensive line -- and the fact it ranked within the top six nationally the past two seasons.

Criteria 3: Control the turnover battle and the clock

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers
On the fence: Iowa, Minnesota
Does meet criteria: Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

The last 11 champs were on the right side of time of possession, and 11 of the last 13 won the turnover battle. Several Big Ten teams, such as Indiana and Rutgers, faced this issue -- but only one new team showed up on the "doesn't meet criteria" list this time around. Nebraska. Clearly, this is something that can be overcome. But, right now, the Huskers absolutely get a resounding "no" in this category. They lost the turnover battle the last three seasons and their opponents controlled the clock last year. Iowa and Minnesota need to do better, but they haven't done as lousy as others over the past four seasons.

Criteria 4: Rank within the top 30 of rush offense

Doesn't meet criteria: Illinois, Maryland, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers
On the fence: Iowa, Minnesota
Does meet criteria: Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Eleven of the last 13 champs satisfied this criteria, and only one team was an exception: Michigan State. So maybe it doesn't seem fair to see the Spartans eliminated here. But we're not necessarily picking out the Big Ten champion -- just who satisfies with most criteria. And, sadly, Michigan State is out. It was much easier eliminating the Wolverines and Nittany Lions because both offensive lines have their fair share of question marks. Michigan averaged just 3.28 yards per carry last season and needs a tailback to step up, while Penn State hasn't broken the top 30 since 2008. Iowa and Minnesota were also both interesting cases. Neither has recent history on its side, but the Gophers need to move up just seven spots from last season to satisfy this criteria -- and dual-threat QB Mitch Leidner is leading the charge now. (The Gophers haven't met this criteria for eight straight seasons.) Iowa has a strong offensive line and three solid tailbacks, but it needs to move up 20 spots from last year. This might be the Hawkeyes' best shot at cracking the top 30 since the last season they did it, in 2008 when Shonn Greene finished sixth in the Heisman race.

So who meets all the criteria?

Well, Adam Rittenberg just covered how the Buckeyes might be getting a bit too much credit, but Ohio State is the only team that satisfies all the criteria here. Easily. Criteria 1? They've done that every season since the turn of the century. Criteria 2? For the last four seasons, they've been on the right side of both turnovers and time of possession. Criteria 3? The defensive line is arguably the best position group in the Big Ten. Criteria 4? They've done it year after year for the last nine seasons. Odds are the Buckeyes will meet all the criteria once again in 2014. We'll just have to see if that's enough for a title.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:30
PM ET
Football, please get here. I can't stand watching Chicago baseball any more.
It's getting closer, folks. The 2014 season will be here before you know it, and Big Ten media days are less than three weeks away.

The league today released the list of players who will be on hand at the Hilton Chicago on July 28-29 for media days and the kickoff luncheon.

Here they are ...

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA

David Cooper, Sr., LB
Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB
Shane Wynn, Sr., WR*

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, Sr., QB
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR*
Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., DB

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, Sr., DE*
Devin Gardner, Sr., QB*
Jake Ryan, Sr., LB*

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE*
Connor Cook, Jr., QB*
Kurtis Drummond, Sr., FS*

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, Sr., DL*
Jeff Heuerman, Sr., TE*
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB*

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, Sr., RB
Sam Ficken, Sr., PK*
Mike Hull, Sr., LB

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, Sr., FB
Darius Hamilton, Jr., DL
Lorenzo Waters, Sr., DB

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT
Jon Davis, Sr., TE
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT*
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL*
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB
Mitch Leidner, So., QB
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB*
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR*
Corey Cooper, Sr., S*

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S*
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE

WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB*
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT*
Warren Herring, Sr., DL

* indicates previous all-conference selection

I really like this list. The main reason: the number of non-seniors. Nothing against the graybeards, but too often Big Ten teams have brought only seniors to media days even if other players were better, more marketable, strong team leaders and more charismatic with reporters. Yes, I'm incredibly biased about this event: I want the best talkers.

While several Big Ten teams are taking the senior-only approach, others are bringing underclassmen who fill key roles. Minnesota will bring sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner because he's now the leader of the offense. The same goes for Indiana with junior signal-caller Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State is bringing juniors Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun because they both played huge roles in last year's championship run. Stefon Diggs is the most recognizable Maryland player, even though he's a junior. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't technically a senior, but barring injury this will be his last year as a Badger -- and his only chance to attend media days.

There's a decent contingent of quarterbacks -- seven in all -- that includes two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller, Cook and Michigan's Devin Gardner. The only major omission is Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could be one of the league's top players this season. The Lions throw us a bit of a curveball with kicker Sam Ficken. Interesting.

On behalf of all Big Ten media members, I'd like to thank Nebraska for bringing Bell. We are eternally grateful. And Kenny, I will make fun of you for being a Canucks fan.

Staying with the Huskers, senior running back Ameer Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on July 29. An excellent choice.
Maryland and Rutgers fans might have the wrong idea about their new Big Ten brethren.

For the most part, Midwesterners are excessively nice and hospitable. Coastal arrogance or aloofness has no place in the heartland, and the only frostiness in these parts is the weather. Big Ten fans might not have done backflips when they found out Rutgers and Maryland were joining the league, but now that the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins are part of the league, they will embrace their new, well-located friends.

But there are certain individuals that rankle even the most sensible Midwesterners. They are the folks you love to boo. Sadly, some of our favorite Big Ten villains -- Bret Bielema, Terrelle Pryor, Taylor Lewan -- are no longer here to kick around, but others remain.

Some of these folks have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have been too good on the field or on the sideline or as high school recruits. Others have said or done things to stir the pot.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesPenn State coach James Franklin's exuberance has grown a little annoying for some around the Big Ten.
Today, we unmask these villains.

To those on this list, an important point: the only true villains in college football are good enough to be villains. No one cares what the last-place coach or quarterback thinks. So you have earned this distinction. Put it right next to your playing or coaching awards.

Another reminder: this is all in good fun.

Without further ado, the list in alphabetical (not villainous) order:

Jim Delany, commissioner, Big Ten: He is one of the most powerful figures in college sports and has built the Big Ten into a revenue superpower through initiatives like the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten will never have a commissioner who makes a greater impact for such a long period of time. But Delany is still known more for his pro-BCS stance, Legends and Leaders, and the eyebrow-raising additions of Rutgers and Maryland. He lacks Larry Scott's polish or Mike Slive's willingness to stump for his constituents no matter what. Delany is a true independent voice and, at times, it has hurt his image among Big Ten fans. He might not be truly appreciated until he's gone.

James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Remember when Penn State's offseasons used to be quiet? Franklin has generated noise -- joyful noise for Nittany Nation, not so much for other fan bases -- since his opening news conference in January. He has made bold statements about dominating regional recruiting and backed it up so far, compiling a top-5 class for 2015. Franklin soaked up the spotlight during his May tour around the state and appears to be in front of every microphone and camera. Recruits and many fans love the guy, but some question his authenticity and get tired of the incessant hype.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: He is about as subdued a superstar as we have seen in the Big Ten and a welcome departure from his predecessor, Pryor. But the introverted Miller has inflicted quite a bit of damage on Big Ten fan bases, leading Ohio State to a 16-0 mark in regular-season league games the past two seasons as the starter. Miller has been the king of comebacks during his Buckeyes career, leading six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most among any FBS player. Knock him if you'd like for lack of a Big Ten title, but his best could be still to come.

Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State: He is the overlord of the Big Ten's best defense and one of the nation's most dominant units. Michigan State and Alabama are the only FBS teams to rank among the top 11 nationally in the four major defensive categories in each of the past three seasons. Narduzzi's incessant blitzes punish quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Just ask Michigan. The Spartans have a good thing going and Narduzzi knows it, telling ESPN.com, "I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do. ... We've been ahead of the curve for years."

Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: How can Peppers be a Big Ten villain when he hasn't even played a Big Ten game? I'll answer that question with a question: How many recent Big Ten players have generated more headlines before they step on the field than Michigan's prized incoming recruit? It's not Peppers' fault, but 13 of the 14 Big Ten fan bases likely are tired of hearing about the next Charles Woodson, his connection to "Naughty by Nature" and Peppers being the potential savior for an underachieving Wolverines program. Peppers might be the most anticipated Big Ten recruit since Pryor in 2008. He has a lot to prove this fall, and quite a few folks hope he busts.

Villains on deck: Urban Meyer, Bo Pelini, Connor Cook, Julie Hermann, Christian Hackenberg

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%
    •  
      14%
    •  
      3%

    Discuss (Total votes: 7,207)

     
  • 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
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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.

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It's moving day for Maryland and Rutgers. Adam Rittenberg takes a look at how -- and why -- the two schools are making a move to the Big Ten.
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