As the NCAA tournament whittles its field down even further on Friday, so too does our Big Ten bracket challenge. This is your opportunity to sound off on the best game settings around the league.

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Which game day setting is better?

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    72%

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    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,189)

The results are in from the first round, and we're into the quarterfinal round. Today's matchup features Penn State, which received one of two first-round byes, and Michigan State, which easily outpaced Maryland in its first-round matchup. The polls close Tuesday at 4 p.m.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 7 Michigan State

Tournament résumés:

Penn State: Beaver Stadium truly turns into its own city during game days. RVs and other tailgaters take up what seem like miles of terrain as Nittany Lions fans flock from all over to see their favorite team. More than 100,000 fans regularly pack the place and make things very uncomfortable for opposing teams. Night games and white-outs are especially impressive scenes. Penn State has one of the largest and most engaged student sections you'll find anywhere, and chants of "We Are!" will ring in your ears coming into and out of the stadium. A picturesque setting and a charming college town also enhance the environment. The only real drawback is getting into and out of State College in a timely fashion. Then again, why are you in such a hurry to leave?

Michigan State: Fans at Spartan Stadium have had plenty to cheer about in the past five years, but head coach Mark Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis haven’t tried to hide their continuous struggle to make sure all 75,000 seats are filled, especially in the student section. Tailgating stretches across a large part of the surrounding area, leaving plenty of places to park and set up a grill for the afternoon. Fans welcome players at the stadium tunnel hours before kickoff. Once inside, the “Go Green! Go White!” chorus echoes around the stands throughout the game. The movie “300” also gave the fans a new chant to bellow on command. The eight-story press box helps hold the sound inside the stadium.

Vote now to choose who advances.

How do Big Ten teams combat their geographic disadvantages in recruiting, when many of the best players are in different regions? One of the answers is increasingly becoming satellite camps.

Penn State's James Franklin is the George Washington of this particular idea in the Big Ten. He ruffled some feathers in the South last year when he and some assistants participated in camps at Stetson (Florida) and Georgia State as guest coaches. That got the Nittany Lions exposure and face-to-face contact with prospects in some of the hottest recruiting hotbeds.

Nebraska's new staff under Mike Riley used to do the same type of things when it was at Oregon State, located far away from many prospect pipelines. The Huskers are already planning on adopting the satellite camp idea this summer, most likely in Texas, California, Georgia and Florida.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Michigan is jumping into that game as well under new coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Wolverines have booked two guest-coaching spots in June so far, in Alabama and in Texas. How excited do you think Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin will be to see Jim Harbaugh working camps in their states this summer?

The NCAA prohibits schools from holding camps more than 50 miles from their campus. But as long as the school isn't hosting the camp and its coaches are merely guests at a site, then everything is kosher.

Except, that is, in the SEC, which has a rule that forbids its coaches from working satellite camps. SEC coaches were upset about Franklin's foray last year, and the league made noise about changing the NCAA rule allowing for guest coaches. Boo hoo. Those guys have every other recruiting advantage in the world.

There's really no downside here at all for Big Ten teams entering this realm. It can be extremely helpful for a program like Nebraska, which struggles to get kids to Lincoln for official visits. Even Michigan has to recruit more nationally now because there is less talent in its state, and Harbaugh is going to turn over every stone. Ohio State might be the only Big Ten school that doesn't have to go the satellite camp route, because the Buckeyes have a wealth of talent in Ohio from which to draw and Urban Meyer's recruiting reach extends to pretty much anywhere he wants it to go. But you have to wonder if Meyer might look more seriously at the idea now that the team up North is working down South.

Numbers don't lie. There are simply more and better prospects in the South and in Texas. If you can't move your schools there, then the next best thing is to get as much face time and brand recognition as possible in those areas. The coaches and programs in those regions don't like the invasion, but there is no unfair practice involved here. It's just competition.

I love it. Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan have the right idea. Tell the rest of the league to load up the car. We're going (satellite) camping!

CommitCast: No. 54 Rahshaun Smith replay

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
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OLB Rahshaun Smith, No. 54 in the ESPN Junior 300, announced his commitment to Clemson. Watch the replay and hear why he chose the Tigers.

Is there anything better than Big Ten football in the fall?

We think not, which is why we're dreaming of our ultimate Big Ten road trip in 2015. In case you've missed the previous installments, we've been giving our picks for which game we would attend each week if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Time to look at Week 8:

Saturday, Oct. 24

Wisconsin at Illinois

Penn State vs. Maryland

Indiana at Michigan State

Northwestern at Nebraska

Ohio State at Rutgers

Byes: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota Purdue

Austin Ward's pick: Northwestern at Nebraska

By this point there should already be an understanding of where these programs stack up in the West Division, and there probably won’t be huge stakes in the race unless the Wildcats have truly recovered from their recent rough patches and found some consistency on offense. But if the Huskers are going to be a factor, this is a matchup at home it can’t afford to overlook. And for Pat Fitzgerald, taking his team into a tough place to win and pulling out a victory would have value not only in climbing back up in the standings and potentially into the postseason again, but it might have a long-term impact establishing the Wildcats as a threat again.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Ohio State at Rutgers

I’m off the High Points Solutions Stadium, because it’s the closest Ezekiel Elliott or any of Ohio State quarterbacks will get to New York City until December. Maybe Urban Meyer can steer the team bus through Times Square to offer extra motivation for the Buckeyes’ Heisman candidates. Really, this is not a great week of matchups in the Big Ten, and OSU squashed Rutgers 56-17 a year ago. I’m not expecting a compelling game, but I want to see the atmosphere for this in Piscataway, and I’m wondering if Rutgers cast of running backs can penetrate the Ohio State defense. Probably not, but hey, a stopover in New York beckons.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

"Let the rivalry begin." Those were Randy Edsall's words when Maryland pulled off the historic win in State College last year. Don't think Penn State has forgotten that -- or that the Terps refused to shake hands before the game. This might just be turning into a heated new rivalry in the Big Ten, and with this game being in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, I'd expect some Nittany Lions fans to make it closer to a neutral site. Save me a crab cake, and I'll see you there.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

Our choices are thin in Week 8, so I'm going with a matchup that could wind up blossoming into a nice rivalry. Call it what you will right now, but this game is sure to be an interesting one after last season's no-handshake escapade (and don't forget about the pregame scuffle either). The Nittany Lions tried to downplay how they felt after the Terps' 20-19 win, but it's clear they weren't fans of the move. Outside of the theatrics, this could be another close contest -- or at least has less blowout potential than the other games.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama

Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State

Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami

Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan

Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin

Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota

video
On Monday, we ranked the best bang-for-the-buck coaching values in college football. Today we look at the opposite end of the spectrum and discuss coaches who are overpaid, based on bloated salaries and a lack of results.

Note that some of the coaches below are still relatively new, but the money they’re making will rapidly increase expectations, which will lead to angst if those expectations aren’t met.

The estimated salary figures come from a combination of documents obtained by ESPN.com and the USA Today coaches’ salary database.

1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Estimated 2015 salary:
$4 million
Iowa fans are already rolling their eyes. They’ve heard all this before because they’ve seen their school handcuffed for years by the worst contract in college football. If not for a buyout that at one point would have pushed $20 million, Ferentz likely would have been out. No, he definitely would have been out. Instead, because of an unheard of 10-year deal he signed after the 2009 season, Iowa continues to pay top-10 money for a program that isn’t sniffing the top 10 in the polls. Coaches agree that Iowa isn’t the easiest place to win, but the resources and facilities are well above average and the division is the most winnable in the country. For $4 million per season, the Hawkeyes should get something more -- far more -- than Ferentz’s 6.8 victories a year since he signed the extension. As the buyout becomes more reasonable as the contract nears its 2020 completion, it’ll be interesting to see at what point the administration is willing to pull the trigger.

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
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Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

Big Ten morning links

March, 24, 2015
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Future uniform possibilities have created some buzz for multiple Big Ten teams this week. A day after Cardale Jones got Buckeye fans excited about a darker look, Michigan fans debated the merits of going retro.

The school said it hasn't made any official decisions about uniforms yet, but a report Tuesday said the Wolverines plan to reinstate pride stickers on their helmets and do away with the short-lived Legends jerseys. Michigan handed out helmet stickers during half of Jim Harbaugh's playing career in the mid-1980s, but got rid of them a decade later. The Legends jerseys, introduced in 2011, were supposed to reward current stars by letting them wear the same numbers as former Michigan greats.

The big wardrobe decision for Michigan comes this summer, when the school has to decide whether it will pursue its contract with Adidas or look for another supplier. The school reportedly polled its student-athletes over the weekend, and like most young Americans, they said they would prefer to wear Nike.

Michigan is Adidas' biggest brand in college sports and its most expensive contract. If the Wolverines opt for a different logo, it could be a potential blow to the company's recent efforts to be cool again in in America. The German-based shoemaker tied its fate to soccer globally and has consistently lost market share to Nike and relative newcomer Under Armour in recent years in the U.S.

Adidas is rethinking its strategy in the U.S., according to an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal this week. Adidas is making changes to try to win back the loyalty of young Americans. Michigan would be a good vehicle for that project, but upping the cool factor in time to convince the school to stick around will be difficult.

Speaking of things that make you cool, don't forget to vote for your favorite college gameday settings in the Big Ten blog's version of March Madness.

And now, onto the links…

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice has just begun for Penn State, but James Franklin already knows the keys for the Nittany Lions this offseason: offensive line and middle linebacker.

It’s really no secret. On offense, the line is without its most experienced asset in NFL draft hopeful Donovan Smith – and, even with him, PSU ranked No. 118 nationally last season in tackles-for-loss allowed (7.54 per game). On defense, PSU needs to replace its top leader in departing senior and All-B1G athlete Mike Hull.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY SportsKeeping Christian Hackenberg clean in the pocket is a top priority for Penn State.

“I think that’s clearly our challenge on defense,” Franklin said prior to Friday's first practice, “not just because of the football player Mike Hull was, but also his leadership and the position he played, being the quarterback of the defense.”

PSU will seek to fill his presence with some combination of three players: returning OLB starter Nyeem Wartman, redshirt junior Gary Wooten and talented-but-injury prone Ben Kline. Wartman is believed to have the inside track on the job due to his experience – although Franklin declined to name an early favorite.

But defense isn’t a huge concern for Linebacker U, especially considering the return of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his second-ranked total defense. The real worry this spring, the unit all eyes will be on, is once again the offensive line.

Only six offensive lines in the FBS allowed more sacks in 2014, and only produced fewer rushing yards. But, despite the numbers, Franklin is looking at the positive.

“Last year, at this point, we had two returning starters in the start of spring ball,” he said. “Had a bunch of new faces in there with a new system. It’s completely different.”

Now, PSU finally at least boasts a two-deep on the line and returns six players with some starting experience. That’s still far from ideal – Franklin preferably would teach players in the system for two seasons before starting them as redshirt sophomores – but that depth is not yet established.

The line has still made strides when it comes to experience, as the two DTs-turned-OGs now have a year under their belts, and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner will enroll sometime after spring practice. Obviously that means good news for the running game -- but it might just mean better news for someone else.

“There’s nobody that is happier about this group returning and the strides they’ve made than Mr. and Mrs. Hackenberg,” Franklin said with a smile, referring to the parents of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. “I’m excited about them. I know [OL coach] Herb [Hand] is excited about working with them. I know they’re so much more confident mentally and physically.”

After the spring’s second practice on Saturday, Franklin said it was still too early to gauge the exact progress of the line and linebackers – “hard to evaluate truly without pads on” – but he remains hopeful for the spring.

He’s already noticed an improvement in his team’s footwork and assignments. The next step is simply fostering more competition until the spring game April 18.

Big Ten morning links

March, 23, 2015
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Cardale Jones got fans talking Friday when he posted this photo on Instagram.

The picture? A photoshopped rendition of a black-and-red Ohio State uniform, something not yet in the Buckeyes' repertoire. "How Sick Would This Be," Jones wrote.

How Sick Would This Be

A photo posted by Cardale Jones (@cardale12_) on



A special uniform like that would be long (and somewhat) overdue for the Buckeyes. Rumors of a black alternate uniform circulated last season before Urban Meyer halted the fun by saying there were no such plans. Still, Meyer said he would be fine with it "somewhere down the road."

It's definitely pretty slick. But, for whatever reason, it just seems like black is a great choice for a uniform. (Just ask Iowa fans.) Twitter was aflutter just three months ago for a similar wardrobe change at Penn State. Defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Akeel Lynch excited the fan base with this Photoshop, and James Franklin was eventually asked about the possibility. The answer? Possibly, but time moves slow on uniform changes.

Maybe we'll see something similar in The Horseshoe soon enough. Or maybe schools should open up some sort of concept contest to fans because there's been some cool-looking mock-ups floating around. (Hint, hint, Maryland.)

Now, on to the links ...

James Franklin's squad ended the 2014 season on a high note -- overcoming a two-TD deficit to shock Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl overtime -- and it is hoping to build off that in 2015.

The schedule is aligned pretty well for the Lions this season. Its nonconference slate includes a slew of cupcakes (Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army), and a 6-0 start certainly isn't out of the question. That's one of the reasons we named Penn State one of two potential Cinderellas this season.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg returns as PSU's starting QB, hoping to rebound from a 7-6 season in 2014.

But, of course, there's this whole matter of getting through the spring first ...

(For an additional pre-spring primer, check out our state of the program report on Penn State and key position battles.)

Spring schedule: Practice begins this wintry Friday and continues on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays until the annual scrimmage. (PSU will also practice the Friday before the scrimmage.). The annual Blue-White Game will take place 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 18, and remains free and open to the public. Parking is also free.

What's new? For the first time since the spring of 2011, there isn't a whole lot of change to the coaching staff. Actually, outside of new graduate assistants and a re-shuffling of some administration, there's nothing new to report. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop turned down an offer from LSU and signed a new deal with Penn State, and defensive line coach Sean Spencer decided to stick with the Lions despite a "dramatic raise" elsewhere. For the first time in any current player's career, the entire coaching staff returns.

Biggest question: It's the same as last season -- what kind of liability will this offensive line be? Only six offensive lines allowed more sacks last season, and only eight sprang their running backs to fewer rushing yards. Assistant Herb Hand is widely regarded as a solid offensive line coach, but he's no magician. There wasn't enough talent, depth or experience on the roster last season, and this line still has its fair share of question marks once again this season. Left tackle Donovan Smith declared early for the NFL draft, so PSU will need to find a replacement this spring. (Junior-college transfer Paris Palmer is among the candidates.) How much progress can PSU's line make? And how will PSU fill the void left by Smith? Those are two very important questions this spring.

Three things we want to see:

1. Christian Hackenberg shaking off last season and taking time with his throws: Give the passer credit for not throwing in the towel and blaming his offensive line for his struggles last season. He's still a great quarterback -- one with top-10 potential in next year's draft -- but he has to rebound mentally from last season and not react as if he's going to get hit every play. That's primarily what it boils down to this spring. He's a smart player and, when he's on, few are better.

2. Someone filling MLB Mike Hull's shoes: Hull was the heartbeat of the 2014 team, and it might take more than one player to fill his leadership role. That being said, for now, we're more interested in who'll be taking his MLB spot. Franklin mentioned three candidates on Tuesday -- Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten and Ben Kline -- and Wartman should be considered the early favorite since he started outside last season. The earlier this position is decided, the better it is for Penn State. Wartman has always been a hard tackler, and he could be in store for a breakout 2015.

3. A maturing group of wide receivers: This is the position that was big on talent but short on experience last season. And that should change at least a bit. DaeSean Hamilton, an All-B1G selection, returns as the primary target -- but there's no telling who might end up as the No. 2. Geno Lewis is athletic but inconsistent, and several highly-recruited players are looking to vye for more time. Sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall showed flashes as first-year players last season, and strong springs for them mean better times are ahead for Hackenberg.

It’s time once again to start winding down your week with the last edition of the #B1GFridayFive. Take a few minutes at halftime during the NCAA Tournament to check out this week’s post and share your thoughts on our picks with social media. Join the conversation by using the hashtag and giving us your opinions directly by following @BennettESPN, @MitchSherman, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN, @TomVH and @ESPN_BigTen.

This week has already had its share of memorable buzzer-beaters thanks to the NCAA tourney. In honor of the excitement, we compile a list of five last-second victories in Big Ten football games that are sure to make you fall out of your chair.

Some ground rules: We stuck to games within the last 25 years to make sure we could provide you with video evidence, because what fun is a Hail Mary win without listening to the home team’s radio announcer lose his mind when describing it? All games also had to be between conference opponents. So you won’t find Iowa’s comeback against LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl or other classics like this one or this one.

With those qualifications in mind, here are our five favorite dramatic finishes in the Big Ten in chronological order.

1. Ohio State def. Iowa, 27-26, Nov. 10, 1990

Trailing by five, the Buckeyes had less than a minute to go 48 yards and complete a comeback against Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes. Iowa was ranked No. 6 in the nation and had yet to lose a conference game that season. Ohio State quarterback Greg Frey worked his team down to the 3-yard line before connecting with receiver Bobby Olive, who managed to squeeze both feet to the ground in front of the end line for a game-winning score with one second left on the clock.

2. Minnesota def. Penn State, 24-23, Nov. 6, 1999

[+] EnlargeDan Nystrom
AP Photo/Chris GardnerMinnesota kicker Dan Nystrom, right, celebtrates with holder Ryan Rindels after kicking the game-winning field goal against Penn State with two seconds left.

No. 2 Penn State invited Minnesota to Happy Valley for its homecoming in 1999. The Gophers had not been to a bowl game since 1986. But Dan Nystrom’s 32-yard field goal as time expired at Beaver Stadium changed all of that. Minnesota got its sixth win to qualify for the postseason. The Nittany Lions lost the two games that followed and fell to the Alamo Bowl instead of getting a shot at a national title.

3. Iowa def. Penn State, 24-23, Nov. 8, 2008

Nine years later, almost to the day, history repeated itself for Penn State fans. Their Lions were 9-0, ranked No. 3 and hoping to get Joe Paterno a national championship late in his career. A middle-of-the-pack Iowa team derailed those plans. Running back Shonn Greene put the Hawkeyes within striking distance with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make the score 23-21 with nine minutes to play. An interception gave the Hawkeyes a final drive late in the game and Daniel Murray finished the upset with a 31-yard field goal.

4. Michigan State def. Wisconsin, 37-31, Oct. 22, 2011

Kirk Cousins connected with Keith Nichol a true Hail Mary play to upset the Badgers in a meeting between ranked teams. The 44-yard pass ricocheted off one Spartans receiver in the end zone and dropped into Nichols’ arms at the 1-yard line. He wrestled his way toward the end zone, but was marked down just shy of the goal line. Referees reviewed the play and saw that Nichols had broken the plane before a pair of Wisconsin defenders threw him backward.

5. Nebraska def. Northwestern, 27-24, Nov. 2, 2013

What a scene in Lincoln, baby! That was the Nebraska radio call when Jordan Westerkamp pulled in a tipped ball on the final play of a 27-24 win over Northwestern in 2013. Ron Kellogg threw a 50-yard pass that skipped off of a pile of players at the goal line and on to Westerkamp who was waiting behind the crowd. The win gave the Huskers a 6-2 record. It was just another week for the Wildcats, who lost seven straight that season including overtime defeats in the week before and after the heartbreaker in Lincoln.

Honorable mention: Michigan State def. Ohio State, 16-13, Nov. 9, 1974

You can’t mention Big Ten buzzer-beaters without including one of the more bizarre finishes in conference history. Ohio State, led by eventual Heisman winner Archie Griffin, was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Michigan State held an improbable field goal lead late in the fourth quarter, but Griffin and the Buckeyes had one final drive. Spartan coach Duffy Daugherty told his players to expect Woody Hayes to go for the win rather than kick a field goal.

The Buckeyes drove down to the 1-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining. Their first attempt from that distance fell just short. The players scrambled back into position for one final play. It crossed the goal line but referees said time had expired before the snap. Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, who was at the game, forced both teams to stay in the stadium while he chased down the referees for an explanation. Forty-six minutes later, without the benefit of instant replay, they decided there was no buzzer-beater. Michigan State held on to win.

Big Ten morning links

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20
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Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.

I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.

Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.

He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:

"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."

You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.

Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.

He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."

Now, on to the links ...

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State tight end Jesse James was advised to return his senior year. The NFL Draft Advisory Board told defensive end Deion Barnes he’d likely be a fifth-round pick.

Jesse James
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsJesse James is rated among the top 10 tight ends in the 2015 draft.

Those projections didn’t deter either underclassman. They said on Thursday afternoon – the first time they spoke publicly since their decisions – they simply felt they were ready. It didn’t matter what the board said.

“No, I don’t regret it at all,” Barnes said, when asked if he’d reconsider had he known he wouldn’t receive an invitation to the NFL combine. “It wasn’t a quick decision.”

Said James: “I just felt prepared. I sent my thing into the advisory board and they told me to go back to school, but I had confidence in myself that I would succeed and that I would do good throughout this process.”

Left tackle Donovan Smith also declared early – and received criticism from at least one scout for doing so – but left before speaking with the media. It’s the first time, at least in the modern era, that three junior PSU starters declared early for the NFL draft.

Those decisions led to plenty of question marks and second-guessing. But Barnes and James – who’ve seen four head-coaching changes, including the interims, in the last four years -- dispelled any notion they left because of program differences or scheme disagreements. Ultimately, they said, it came down to the same question: Why stay if you feel ready now?

“It doesn’t matter what other people say,” James said. “It’s all about how you feel about yourself. And I feel prepared.”

Barnes and James looked prepared during Thursday’s pro day, where 30 of 32 teams attended. (Seattle and Detroit were the only no-shows.) James – who came in at 6-foot-7.1 inches and 262 pounds – pumped his arms and said he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-second range. (He ran a 4.83 at the combine.) That 40 time would’ve tied him for second-best at the NFL combine, alongside Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman and South Alabama’s Wes Saxton.

Barnes might have turned more heads, as this was the first time scouts watched him perform in shorts. Several alumni and assistants hooted and hollered as Barnes performed 31 reps during the bench press. That would’ve been second-best among defensive ends at the combine, behind only Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr., who did 32.

Barnes said he’s not setting his sights on a particular round; he just wants to get a shot to play football. James? He’s a bit more ambitious. He’s currently ranked as Mel Kiper Jr.'s eighth-best tight end, but James wants to be the first TE off the board.

The pair won’t find out where they go until April 30-May 2, when the draft takes place in Chicago. Until then, they’ll both continue moving on from Penn State – because, they insisted, it’s time. They’re ready.

“If I felt I wasn’t prepared for the next level,” James said, “I would’ve stayed.”

Added Barnes: “I felt like I was physically, mentally ready. I felt like it was that time.”

Potential 2015 Big Ten Cinderellas

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
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It’s that time of year when American sports fans inevitably find a new underdog to celebrate. March Madness has a steady history of producing upsets and unexpected runs because of the nature of the tournament. In college football it’s much tougher to dethrone the powers that be, but there are a couple teams that have the potential to play a Cinderella role in the Big Ten next fall.

Penn State

Despite scratching out a bowl win in their return to the postseason last season, the Nittany Lions never threatened to return to the top of the conference during James Franklin’s first season. They could be primed for a run this season, thanks to a forgiving schedule and some undervalued talent.

Penn State’s biggest weakness in 2014 was its offensive line. That group still has work to do, but if it can find a groove the rest of the roster is in good shape. Franklin has added good depth to a wide receiver corps with a pair of returning standouts in Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. They have an NFL-caliber quarterback throwing to them and one of the country’s top defenses on the other side of the ball.

The 2015 schedule should give the offensive line time to figure things out. Penn State has a good chance to start 6-0 before traveling to Columbus in October. Even with a loss to Ohio State, a 9-1 record heading into pivotal games against Michigan and Michigan State to close the season is very realistic. A couple wins against the East Division’s three evil stepsisters (OK, two evil stepsisters and a third threatening to return to her evil ways soon) would qualify the Nittany Lions for Cinderella status.

Minnesota

Minnesota, with facilities that qualify as a hollowed-out pumpkin when compared to some of its competition, has strung together consecutive eight-win seasons. The Gophers are a threat to get over the hump in the West Division because of their ability to keep games close.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns with an offense that needs to find new playmakers. If the Gophers can find another workhorse at running back, they should be able to continue to shorten games and keep up with more talented opponents -- like they did in a seven-point loss to Ohio State last November. Leidner needs to improve the passing attack to give the offense a chance to make big plays and pull out those types of upsets late in the game.

The teams to beat in the West -- Nebraska and Wisconsin -- both have new coaching staffs this season, which opens a window for the Gophers. Midnight might come for this group in October, when they have to face the Cornhuskers, Michigan and Ohio State in three straight games.

Big Ten morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
9:00
AM ET

Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.

(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)

They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.

The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.

Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.

Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."

It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.

To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.

Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?

A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.

Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.

And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.

Let's go around the rest of the league:

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