NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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You saw our predictions on the conference standings. And our picks for Big Ten defensive player of the year, offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year.

But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.

We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.

Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
Focus only on the position of choice and the conference looks the same as it ever did.

While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.

But look closer.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Andy Clayton-KingMinnesota's David Cobb says every team in the Big Ten needs a good running back to win league games.
Sure, the league remains plenty happy to hand the football off and wait for the dirt to start flying. But the days of expecting 3 yards a pop are long gone, replaced with an expectation now that a featured rusher better be close to doubling that. And instead of a cloud of dust, there had better be a trail of it if a Big Ten tailback is going to keep his job for long.

The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.

"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."

The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.

The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.

Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.

Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.

And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.

"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."

Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.

"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.

"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."

There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.

Big Ten Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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Week 1 is finally here. While there aren't many marquee matchups in the opening weekend, there are a few that have our writers talking.

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.

Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.

Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.

Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.

Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The challenge was always clear, and Urban Meyer offered one final reminder of its importance to his offensive line on the practice field. But it still remains a bit of a mystery who exactly will be on that unit and embracing the opportunity to protect the precious cargo in the backfield just three days shy of Ohio State’s opener.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTaylor Decker is the only full-time starting offensive lineman returning this season for Ohio State.
It appears at least two position battles remain unsettled on the offensive line for the Buckeyes based on the depth chart Meyer released on Wednesday afternoon. Picking starters from a talented pool of options at left guard and center might not have been quite as big of a deal two weeks ago with Braxton Miller around to help make up for a few mistakes or a lack of chemistry up front thanks to his innate ability to escape from pressure. But the Buckeyes don’t have the senior quarterback around to get them out of jams anymore, and with J.T. Barrett making his first start, it seems less than ideal not to have five established blockers in front of him on Saturday against Navy, even if Meyer himself isn’t concerned.

“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”

Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.

The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.

“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.

“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”

The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.

“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.

“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”

The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just after warm-ups with the team, right before heading back out to the field for kickoff, that’s when J.T. Barrett really shined.

Obviously the quarterback was no slouch on the field, and his individual numbers and piles of wins while leading Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, were what really drew the spotlight on him as he emerged into a recruit worth chasing for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThe Buckeyes say they think J.T. Barrett can be more than just a vocal leader this season.
But in the privacy of a locker room, or in the huddle, or while gathering up teammates on the sideline to rally the troops for a comeback, that’s where Barrett made his biggest impression. The new starter for the Buckeyes has always had an accurate arm, enough mobility to make life tough for defenders on the ground and a burning desire to compete. But for Barrett, everything seems to start with his voice.

“It was always the pregame speech,” said Jim Garfield, Barrett's coach at Rider. “We would always come in before warmups and J.T. would have free rein. Really I can’t focus on just one that stands out, because it was throughout his career, and he was doing that for us since his sophomore year.

“Everything he says was like gold.”

The Buckeyes will likely need more than just a golden voice to replace two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller. But as far as first impressions go, Barrett may have a head start thanks to his confidence as a speaker and a knack for motivating his teammates.

While the Buckeyes haven’t yet heard him in a game or seen what he can do on the field for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, they’ve had the better part of a year to get used to him in Miller’s place on the practice field and also had plenty of time during his redshirt season to learn how Barrett carries himself. And to a man, the entire program has come away raving about his leadership skills, maturity -- and when it’s time to stop talking, his physical tools.

“He’s got a great voice in the huddle,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’ll pick guys up and he just displays confidence in himself, which is good to see.

“He’s become the face of our program, basically overnight. He’s definitely coming along with that voice, that leadership role, which is good to see. But other than that, he’s always gone about his business and handled himself well. I’m not worried about that at all. ... There’s just something about him.”

That realization may not come for everybody around Barrett at exactly the same time, but the opinion might as well be universally shared ahead of his first start on Saturday against Navy.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has long praised Barrett’s work ethic, but his interest on the recruiting trail was really piqued by the consistent feedback he received about his desire to compete against the best competition. That’s been reinforced by the way he dove into what was initially a battle to back up Miller, which he won over Cardale Jones just two days before a season-ending injury earned him a promotion to the top gig.

Wide receiver Evan Spencer pointed to Barrett’s ability to motivate, stressing that Ohio State would be “way more than all right” after hearing him boost up the offense with his encouragement during rough patches in training camp.

And while Garfield was sold early on, his belief was truly cemented during Barrett’s junior year when Rider was facing its own adversity as it trailed Abilene Cooper 28-0 in the third quarter.

“We ended up winning it, and it was because of J.T.’s motivation,” Garfield said. “He called the guys up and in his words, he just basically said we’ve got to get this done. He had everybody up, everybody’s attention -- I’m talking like defensive linemen and things like that. Everybody was drawn to him.

“When he started to speak, everybody sat up and listened.”

Barrett has a new audience now, and the Buckeyes are all ears.

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
Few would describe Jim Delany as Mr. Sunshine, but the Big Ten commissioner spread some of it as a new season dawns and, with it, the playoff era in college football.

"It's what I would describe as a fresh start," Delany told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "It's going to be what happens on the field, what happens as the [playoff selection] committee evaluates teams.

"It's much more of a new day than an old day in a sense that the old polls, the old computers are things people can look at, but the tendency is going to be for the committee to look at things in a new way, in a novel way."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJim Delany on nonconference games in the playoff era: "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you."
The new view should help the Big Ten, which needs to deliver an improved brand of football.

If the committee members let recent performance or conference perception enter their minds, the Big Ten will be in trouble. Big Ten fans hate hearing this, but when a league hasn't won a national championship since 2002 and just two Rose Bowls since 2000, its reputation takes a beating.

The playoff decision, if done right, will be about what happens from Thursday night until Selection Sunday on Dec. 7. According to college football playoff executive director Bill Hancock, committee members have been told to "discredit" potential influences like the preseason polls. Hallelujah.

"There's somewhat of a clean slate," Delany said.

It gives the Big Ten the perfect opportunity to change the narrative, beginning with this week's games. No conference needs a stronger start than the Big Ten, which not only has chances to compete with the elite (Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU) but several other games (Virginia Tech-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska, Iowa-Pitt, Utah-Michigan) where it must hold serve.

The goal for the Big Ten is to perform well enough that conference games become résumé-boosters for the playoff rather than overlooked contests in an also-ran league. How many SEC teams have played weak or so-so nonleague schedules but received enough credit for their league wins to make the national title game? That's a luxury the Big Ten wants, and one that must be earned in the coming weeks.

Take the Ohio State-Michigan State game, for example. A Buckeyes win that night means a lot more if it comes against an MSU team that stunned Oregon in Eugene. A Spartans win carries more weight if it comes against an undefeated Ohio State squad that is handling Braxton Miller's absence well. If both teams struggle in nonleague play, the game likely falls off the national radar.

Unfortunately, the Big Ten lacks many premier division crossover games this season. Top West Division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. Nebraska, another threat in the West, only plays Michigan State. It's why the Big Ten needs surprise teams to rise up early in the season. Then there will be more league games the committee must monitor.

Michigan beating Notre Dame and Utah could help, especially if those teams go on to good seasons. The same holds true for Penn State beating UCF, Minnesota beating TCU, Maryland handling West Virginia and Syracuse, and Rutgers and Illinois winning in Seattle (against Washington State and Washington, respectively). It's all connected.

"You only have four nonconference games, and a lot of them are against opponents you're not going to get any credit [for beating]," Delany said. "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you. If you don't, they're going to look at those who do do well. It's important."

One early game that will get much more attention than it would have weeks ago is Saturday's meeting between Ohio State and Navy. Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will make his collegiate debut, filling Miller's massive shoes.

The Miller injury sparked the standard gloom-and-doom about Ohio State's season outlook, but it also spilled over to the Big Ten. If Ohio State couldn't make the playoff, many concurred, the Big Ten was toast, too.

To that, Delany passes out SPF 15 and Ray-Bans.

"Braxton's a great player, a Heisman Trophy hopeful," he said. "Big loss for Ohio State, but to equate it to a conference is probably 'the sky is falling' -- not a lot of perspective. I can't spin it that it doesn't have an effect on Ohio State and some effect on the Big Ten, but college sports is replete with young players doing really well, whether it's [Johnny] Manziel or Jameis Winston. It's also replete with people stepping up, teams adjusting. That's the essence of sports.

"There's no assurance that if you have your team intact, you're going to win all your games. There's no assurance if you lose a player, you can't win all your games."

The possibilities are out there for the Big Ten, but to keep the dark clouds away, the league needs a strong opening statement.
The praise has flooded in from all directions for J.T. Barrett since his rapid ascension to the top of the depth chart at Ohio State.

Tight end Jeff Heuerman hailed the leadership skills of the redshirt freshman. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off Barrett's positive attributes as a passer, starting with his ability to make the right decisions and consistent accuracy that should allow them to pay off for the Buckeyes. Coach Urban Meyer focused on Barrett's potential as a "distributor," likening him to famed Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton in the process.

But there is one more comparison that has popped up during a wild week at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that might offer another clue about how the Buckeyes might look this season without Braxton Miller running the show, one which the coaching staff mentioned to SI.com's Pete Thamel.
Barrett's smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak. "I'll take that," Meyer said with a smile. "I'm a big Chris Leak fan."

If Barrett is Meyer's latest version of Leak, it stands to reason he might also have a need for somebody to fill the role Tim Tebow played in the two-quarterback system that won Florida a national title in 2006. And, look at that, Ohio State has a 6-foot-5, 250-pound battering ram in Cardale Jones already on the roster.

The conversation about Jones has died down considerably since he left spring practice with the backup job ahead of Barrett, but it's not hard to envision how he could still have an impact for the Buckeyes as they put together a game plan for next week's opener against Navy.

For starters, Meyer has proven adept at managing multiple quarterbacks in his spread system in the past. Even a year ago with Miller in the fold, Meyer expressed his desire to find a way to get Guiton more involved and eventually installed a package of plays in the red zone that featured his backup quarterback.

One problem with using them both more often, aside from Miller's athleticism clearly setting him apart, was Meyer's two options behind center had similar skill sets. But that isn't really the case with Barrett and Jones, with the former four inches smaller and relying on an accurate arm, and the latter boasting a powerful-but-inconsistent arm but capable of pounding away at opponents regularly on the ground.

When asked on Wednesday, Meyer didn't rule out playing both quarterbacks as he tries to replace Miller's production, though he didn't provide any insight into how that rotation might work.

But even with Meyer simply saying "sure, yeah," looking at his past and the talent on hand, it's not a stretch to think some sort of quarterback combo could be back in his playbook -- if it isn't already there.
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Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld found himself in a time-share situation at quarterback the past two seasons. No matter how well he performed -- and he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2013 -- Sudfeld never knew exactly when he might start or even play.

Throughout it all, he never complained. He saw a much bigger picture.

“It would be really hard for me, if I had a bad game or something, to get too upset,” Sudfeld said. “I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems.”

Sudfeld’s upbringing ensured that he would never get too wrapped up in himself. He comes from a family of missionaries who actually dare to try and alleviate some of the world’s problems.

His grandfather, Bob Pagett, is a former pastor who along with his wife, Charlene, decided to create a relief organization after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. He never dreamed it would take flight the way it has.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld, Bob Pagett
Courtesy of Matt SudfeldShortly after turning 14, Nate Sudfeld, left, went on a mission to Uganda and Kenya with his grandfather, Bob Pagett, back, and suddenly bad games weren't as bad. "I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems."
That organization, Assist International, now has 19 full-time employees split between its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area and a 25,000 square-foot distribution center outside Sudfeld’s hometown of Modesto, Calif.

Assist International focuses on needs such as providing fresh water, delivering medical supplies and serving orphans in Third World nations. Pagett said the organization has completed projects in more than 60 countries around the world. It has built orphanages and schools in Romania, Uganda and other war-torn or impoverished areas.

Along the way, it also became the family business. Sudfeld’s father, Ralph, will take over as president of the organization next year, while his mother, Michelle, serves as fundraising director. Nate’s older brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development.

Pagett told each of his nine grandchildren that they could go with him on a relief mission when they turned 14. Shortly after he reached that age, Nate Sudfeld went to Uganda and Kenya, meeting renowned missionary Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe along the way. Sudfeld recalled playing soccer with orphans during the trip.

“It’s been a life-changing experience for our grandkids,” Pagett said. “When you grow up in Modesto and all of a sudden you go to Vietnam or Romania, your eyes are wide open and you’re a world person. They’re really into helping the poor and needy around the world, because they’ve been exposed to the world.”

Sudfeld has been itching to go on another mission ever since his first one. He had planned to join his twin brothers Matt and Zach, the latter of whom is a tight end for the New York Jets, on a trip to Uganda this spring. But the itinerary got postponed, and by the time it happened this summer, he was too wrapped up in football preparations.

Sudfeld hopes there will be time after this season to go somewhere on a mission.

“It seems like almost every time I’m on the phone with him he’s saying, ‘When can I go out? When’s the next trip?” Matt Sudfeld said.

For now, though, the Hoosiers take priority, and Sudfeld is the team’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback for the first time. Tre Roberson’s surprising transfer this summer cleared the way for the 6-foot-5 junior who threw 21 touchdown passes in eight starts a year ago.

It’s also the first time that fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson won’t have to juggle quarterbacks. He says Sudfeld has the talent to be "one of the premier players in our league" and that he has definite NFL potential.

That’s what Sudfeld has dreamed of since he was a high school freshman, when he would practice his throwing motion in front of a mirror to make sure he maintained a quick and compact release despite his height. Sudfeld said not having to look over his shoulder this season gives him more confidence, but he’s not settling for just owning the starting job.

“I’m not trying to just be the No. 1 quarterback at Indiana,” he said. “I’m trying to be one of the better players around. If I do that, it will make our whole team better.”

As he was raised to do, Sudfeld sees the bigger picture at play. And football is never all that’s on his mind.

“I’m really glad I was able to get out of my little California bubble at a young age,” he said. “[Relief work] is something I definitely want to be involved in as I get older. There’s nothing like it.”
Urban Meyer couldn't believe it.

Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.

"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...

"You've got me shocked."

Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.

"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPerhaps in a couple of years, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg will be the quarterback who breaks a 20-year drought for Big Ten passers in the first round of the NFL draft.
Unfortunately, Meyer's standout quarterback, Braxton Miller, won't end the streak this year because of injury. Miller would have led a Big Ten quarterback corps that looks strong but still lacks the star power found in the Pac-12 and elsewhere.

Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.

"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."

To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.

"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."

Point taken.

Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.

But the volume isn't there.

"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."

The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.

"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."

Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.

"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."

So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.

"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.

Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.

But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.

"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."

Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.

Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.

"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.

"He's a rare talent."

A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
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There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0

Illini name Wes Lunt starting QB

August, 20, 2014
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In what has to be one of the least surprising resolutions ever to a quarterback competition, Illinois has named Wes Lunt as its starter for the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State next Saturday.

Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.



Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.

Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.

So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.
Oddball is coming to the Big Ten in 2014.

After spreading through the NFL and much of college football, odd defenses -- with three down linemen instead of four -- will be more visible in the Big Ten this season. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana -- will operate mainly with three linemen and four linebackers. Although the Terrapins and Hoosiers prefer the hybrid label for their defenses, all three units will show alignments somewhat foreign to the conference.

In 2012, all 12 Big Ten teams used base defenses featuring four down linemen. Defenses with odd fronts had made cameos at places like Michigan and Indiana in the past -- Northwestern considered moving to a 3-4 early in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure but has since elected to remain in a 4-3 -- but unlike the NFL, where about half of the teams use odd fronts, the Big Ten steered clear of the trend.

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda installed a 3-4 scheme last season, and the Badgers finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg).
Last season, Wisconsin installed the 3-4, which the new coaching staff had used at Utah State. Indiana hopes to upgrade a perennially poor defense as it uses more of a 3-4 look under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. Maryland will keep its scheme -- three linemen, four linebackers but not the traditional two-gap approach seen with 3-4 defenses -- as it transitions from the ACC.

"[Big Ten teams] don't see an odd front every week," Knorr told ESPN.com. "Being multiple, giving them different looks, something they haven't seen, hopefully that's an advantage for us."

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda always planned to install a 3-4 at Wisconsin. He just wasn't sure the Badgers had the personnel to do it in Year 1. They needed a nose tackle who could occupy two blockers, and outside linebackers with the speed-size mix to do it all. Fortunately, Beau Allen filled the nose position and Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly occupied the outside spots.

Wisconsin finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg), rush yards allowed (102.5 ypg), total yards allowed (305.1 ypg) and third-down conversions against (30.6 percent). Aranda likes having an extra linebacker to defend spread offenses, and the 3-4 also has the flexibility to stop the traditional offenses for which the Big Ten is known.

"The power run fits in well with the 3-4," Aranda said.

Indiana will mix three- and four-man fronts, but like Aranda, Knorr inherits players he thinks can fill the critical roles in the 3-4. Nick Mangieri and Zack Shaw, who played defensive end in the previous system, have the ability to blitz from the perimeter or drop back in coverage.

"The offenses are so wide open, and you have to be able to cover the entire field," Knorr said. "Having the ability to drop eight at times, gives you an extra guy in coverage. Having the ability to have five guys in a great position to blitz right away gives you the versatility we're looking for, while being able to keep our disguise."

The disguise, according to Aranda, is what can set 3-4 defenses apart. He wants to keep offenses guessing about the fourth rusher: Will it be the weakside inside linebacker? The strongside outside linebacker? A safety? A cornerback?

As long as the outside linebackers have the ability to both rush and cover, without giving up too much, defensive play-callers can really mix things up.

"I know a lot of teams will be confused and we'll cause a lot of uncertainty and chaos for the offense," Indiana linebacker David Cooper said. "I think we'll do great in the Big Ten."

Maryland typically will use four linebackers, but doesn't feature the massive defensive linemen seen in standard two-gap, 3-4 looks. The Terrapins last season generated pressure both from the linebacker spot (Marcus Whitfield had nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss) and the line (end Andre Monroe had 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss). They return nine defensive starters.

Aranda used to visit Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart when Stewart coached in the NFL under Wade Phillips, a longtime 3-4 defense practitioner. Aranda looks forward to seeing how other odd defenses fare in the Big Ten this season.

"Part of the issue with us last year is we'd go into games not knowing how people would block us," Aranda said. "That works both ways because people don't know how we're going to line up, either, or at least that first year. Now that film's out, but it definitely helps to me when you see someone play Indiana or someone play Maryland, you can see how they're lining up vs. 3-4."

Will the 3-4 keep spreading around the Big Ten? Defensive line has been the league's strongest position in recent years, as players in traditional end or tackle roles have gone on to the NFL in droves.

"There's such a fertile ground for defensive linemen in our area," Aranda admits. "We're trading some of those guys for linebackers and secondary players. Our corners and our safeties are as much our pass-rushers as our D-linemen are.

"There has to be a decision or a philosophy, somewhere along the line, of where you're going with it."

Depending on the results at Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, more Big Ten teams could choose to be odd.
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights:

2013 record: 6-7 (3-5 American Athletic Conference)

Key losses: WR Brandon Coleman, QB Chas Dodd, WR Quron Pratt, DT Isaac Holmes, DE Marcus Thompson, S Jeremy Deering, DE/LB Jamal Merrell

Key returnees: RB Paul James, DT Darius Hamilton, LB Steve Longa, QB Gary Nova, WR Leonte Carroo, TE Tyler Kroft

Instant impact newcomer: Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen was out of football for three years before Rutgers came calling. The former longtime head coach at Maryland is known as a quarterback guru, and the Scarlet Knights are counting on him to help fix the passing game and improve senior quarterback Nova's decision-making.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargePaul James
AP Photo/Mel EvansRunning back Paul James will be counted on as one of Rutgers' top returnees.
Offense: QB: Gary Nova, Sr., 6-2, 220; RB: Paul James, Jr., 6-0, 205; FB: Michael Burton, Sr., 6-0, 230; WR: Leonte Carroo, Jr., 6-1, 205; WR: Andre Patton, Soph., 6-4, 200; TE: Tyler Kroft, Jr., 6-6, 240; LT: Keith Lumpkin, Jr., 6-8, 310; LG: Kaleb Johnson, Sr., 6-4, 300; C: Betim Bujari, Sr., 6-4, 295; RG: Chris Muller, Soph., 6-6, 300; RT: Taj Alexander, Sr., 6-4, 290

Defense: DE: David Milewski, Sr., 6-4, 245; DT: Darius Hamilton, Jr., 6-4, 255; DT: Kenneth Kirksey, Sr., 6-1, 275; DE: Djwany Mera, Jr., 6-4, 260; LB: Steve Longa, Soph., 6-1, 225; LB: Kevin Snyder, Sr., 6-3, 235; LB: Quentin Gause, Jr., 6-1, 220; CB: Nadir Barnwell, Soph., 5-11, 185; FS: Johnathan Aiken, Sr., 5-11, 190; SS: Lorenzo Waters, Sr., 6-0, 195; CB: Anthony Cioffi, Soph., 6-0, 185

Special teams: K: Kyle Federico, Jr.; P Joseph Roth, Jr.

Biggest question mark: How ready is Rutgers for the Big Ten after never winning an outright conference title in the Big East or American Athletic conferences? The Scarlet Knights have a difficult schedule, with crossover opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin, rugged East Division competition and nonconference games at Washington State and at Navy. They have been a strong defensive team in recent years, particularly against the run. But will the philosophy of smaller but quick defensive linemen work against the brute force of many Big Ten squads?

Most important game: Penn State, Sept. 13. It's the first Big Ten game ever for the Scarlet Knights, arriving in Week 3 at home in what should be a special atmosphere in Piscataway. Rutgers hopes to make the Nittany Lions game a true rivalry and, more importantly, cool James Franklin's jets on the recruiting front. Winning this one -- or at the very least staying competitive -- could set the tone for the entire year and maybe the next few seasons.

Upset special: Sept. 27 vs. Tulane. This home game follows a tough two-game stretch against Penn State and on the road at Navy, a team that often discombobulates opponents with its option attack and cut blocking. The Tulane game also precedes a stretch that sees Rutgers face Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The Scarlet Knights could already have nagging aches and pains by the time the Green Wave arrive in town.

Key stat: Rutgers' pass defense in 2013 was the worst in school history, as the Scarlet Knights gave up 4,056 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. That's not good news with an opener against Mike Leach's Washington State looming and quarterbacks such as Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, Nate Sudfeld and Braxton Miller on the schedule.

What they're wearing: The Scarlet Knights haven't unveiled any new looks yet but have announced that they intend to wear all-black uniforms for the Oct. 4 game against Michigan at home.

Team's top Twitter follows: The team's official account (@RFootball) is chock-full of excellent updates. The Star-Ledger's indefatigable stable of writers (@NJ_RutgersFB) is constantly churning out Scarlet Knights stories. Coach Kyle Flood (@KyleFloodRU) offers occasional insights into the program as well.

They said it: "I would describe us as a tough, physical football team. Going to a new league opens up new opportunities for us. We've played a lot of different teams from a lot of different conferences, a lot of different caliber of teams. We'll be prepared for when the season starts." -- senior fullback Michael Burton

ESPN Stats & Information projection: 4.81 wins

Wiseguys over/under: Four wins

Big Ten blog projection: Four wins. Sorry, Scarlet Knights fans, but we think your first year in the Big Ten is going to be a rough one. Rutgers has been an annual bowl team in the past decade but not much better than a fringe one. And with that daunting schedule, it's hard to envision many paths back to the postseason. Flood's team should be significant underdogs against Washington State, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Maryland, Indiana and Navy won't be easy games either. Maybe Rutgers surprises everybody in Year 1, but the odds are heavily against it.
Some national reaction to the news of Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury is focusing not only on the harsh consequences for Ohio State but also on the impact for the Big Ten as a whole. Mark Schlabach basically says the league's quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff took a huge hit.

To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:

[+] EnlargeJosiah Price
AP Photo/Al GoldisTo say the loss of Braxton Miller dooms the Big Ten's College Football Playoff chase is demeaning to the defending Rose Bowl champs.
1. It's Aug. 19. To pretend any of us has any idea what will happen in an upcoming college football season is to ignore history. How many pundits picked Auburn to make the BCS title game last year? I'm guessing most people would have sold their stock on Michigan State's season after the Spartans' lost at Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They turned out all right.

2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.

3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.

4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.

5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.

The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.

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