NCF Nation: Illinois Fighting Illini
8:30 a.m. ET
Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.
Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.
Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.
Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.
Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network: Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.
Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.
James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.
Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.
Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.
No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.
It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.
Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.
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Michigan and Nebraska are both paying $1 million apiece for their nonconference "guarantee" games, making them the only teams to hit the seven-figure mark.
But those two are hardly an exception in the conference. Of the top 11 payouts, six Big Ten teams made the cut: Michigan State (Jacksonville State -- $620K), Illinois (Youngstown State -- $560K), Iowa (Northern Iowa -- $550K), and Purdue (Western Michigan -- $525K), in addition to the Huskers (Florida Atlantic) and Wolverines (Appalachian State).
Home games are a huge priority for most teams, and paying opponents means those teams above don't have to worry about scheduling home-and-home contests. Penn State's James Franklin said during the spring that his main objective in scheduling was simply to reduce away games.
"I want to get as many [home games] as we could get," he said. "If we could figure out how to get 11, I would like to get 11 home games.
"I don't think that's necessarily going to happen."
Click here to read Rovell's story and how teams outside the B1G stack up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Illinois isn't trying to be Kansas State. The Illini would love to replicate K-State's on-field results, but their recent influx of junior college players isn't an effort to model what Bill Snyder has done in the Little Apple.
It boils down to basic math and basic needs.
"We needed depth, man," coach Tim Beckman told ESPN.com. "We just needed a bunch of depth."
The program-building model isn't ideal, but if the transfers pan out, Illinois could get the bowl boost it sorely needs.
"Some people who feel like, 'We're building a program, we've got five, six years to do this,' they may not go that junior college route," said Alex Golesh, Illinois tight ends and running backs coach, and the team's recruiting coordinator. "We felt, 'Hey, we've got to get this thing going right now,' and this was our answer."
Beckman first realized the depth desperation after his first season, when the team reconvened for practice in March 2013. He and his staff had inherited a large senior class in 2012, but the subsequent two classes had atrophied. There were only about a dozen players left in each.
The coaches had a choice: start a bunch of freshmen and sophomores or look for immediate help elsewhere.
"You want to know how bad the number situation was here?" Beckman asked. "We didn't have enough defensive backs to be two deep."
So they picked up Zane Petty, a junior college safety from California who made seven starts last season. They added another California juco, Eric Finney, to play the Star position (safety/outside linebacker), and Martize Barr, a former New Mexico receiver/safety who landed at Iowa Western Community College. Barr originally was pegged for the secondary but moved to wide receiver.
The wide receiver and defensive line groups Illinois trots out this fall will reflect the junior college push. Barr and Allison should start, and Tyrin Stone-Davis, a Philadelphia native who played juco ball in California, will be in the rotation. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Ward is expected to be a major contributor on the defensive line, along with Phillips at the Leo (rush end) and Joe Fotu and Abe Cajuste.
"This defensive line is like a different group," Golesh said. "Talk about dudes that look like they're supposed to look like and play like they're supposed to play."
Junior college recruiting isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other leagues, but things are shifting. Teams that never used to bring in jucos, such as Wisconsin and Penn State, suddenly have a few on the roster.
Before initiating the push, Beckman consulted with Illinois' admissions office to gauge who could get into school. The coaches received transcripts from about 120 players, and the university identified who could make it academically. Only 25 to 30 players received the green light.
The approach reduces the risk often attached to junior college players.
"We're recruiting a high-academic, junior college kid," Golesh said. "Those kids who are right on the border, we're not recruiting them because we can't get them in school. So there's one of your red flags that you cross off."
As Golesh dove deeper into junior college recruiting, he realized something else. Like Bill Snyder says about juco players: The perception out there is something went wrong in his high school career. Young people are young people. What's the quality of their character?
"You go recruit the California junior colleges and it's amazing how many high school qualifiers are out there that were just overlooked because there are so many kids and the state is so big," Golesh said. "The misconception is the kid committed a crime or didn't qualify out of high school. That's not the case anymore."
Ward didn't qualify academically coming out of high school in Philadelphia, so he spent two years at Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in New York. He connected with Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a fellow Philly native, and signed with Illinois in February.
"For two years, I've been grinding," Ward said. "I always think the time is now. A lot of juco players, they're hungry. If you're not hungry, then I don't know what to say. We come here to eat."
Jucos arrive with ticking clocks, and Illinois coaches see the urgency in practice. Another benefit, according to Golesh, is how they push older players expecting to inherit, not earn, starting jobs.
The integration with the non-transfers seems to be going smoothly, too. Ward calls his new teammates "brothers for life."
"It's not a two-year thing," he added.
One challenge is leadership, especially for transfers in command positions. Like Ward, Lunt has blended well with his teammates since transferring from Oklahoma State.
But leading them "is a little harder," he said.
"To be a leader that everyone looks up to, you have to get on the field and play," Lunt said. "That's a big part of it."
Plenty of Illinois' transfers will play significant roles this fall on both sides of the ball. Asked how much Illinois will rely on the imports, Golesh replied, "A ton."
It won't always be this way. Beckman anticipates only one more year of heavy juco recruiting before Illinois will have the numbers it needs.
But to secure his future after two bowl-less seasons, Beckman needs the transfers to step up right now.
"They've come in ready to play, ready to try to give us some immediate impact," he said. "They've been unbelievable."
So as we wrap up The Season project, we are left with one last and obvious question to debate: What player at a current Big Ten school had the best season of all time?
Brian Bennett: It's so difficult to compare eras. What Minnesota's Bronko Nagurski and Iowa's Nile Kinnick did in playing both ways for their teams will probably never be equaled, and yet their offensive numbers pale in comparison to today's. I frankly don't know how players from the 1920s, '30s and '40s would translate to modern times.
"The Galloping Ghost" -- and really, how can you argue against a name like that? -- changed the game with his offensive prowess. Damon Runyon once wrote that ""He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange." ESPN named him the greatest college football player of all time in 2008, and the Big Ten Network selected him as the league's No. 1 icon in 2011.
Has Grange's legend benefited from nostalgia, grainy film fragments and the hyperbolic sportswriting of his time? Of course. But he is also one of the figures most associated with the Big Ten, and his 1924 season stands alone.
Mitch Sherman: Well, Brian, thanks for stealing my thunder about the old-timers. I'm going with Nagurski. Players at Big Ten schools have enjoyed many great offensive seasons, but when I think of the league in a historical context, defense first comes to mind. For decades, it was the hardest-hitting, most old-school conference.
Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith embody the spirit of the Big Ten. But no player to wear the uniform of a Big Ten team can match the toughness of Nagurski, the robust Canadian who produced one of his most dominant performances in a college game while wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae.
Before Nagurski became the first player to earn All-Pro honors in the NFL at three positions, he left a legacy of legendary feats at Minnesota. In 1929, his final season, Nagurski led the nation in rushing as a fullback, earning All-America honors on offense and at defensive tackle.
Nagurski didn't just play both ways; he dominated on offense and defense. Physically, in his era, Nagurski's brute force was unmatched as a runner and a blocker. College competitors were almost no match for him, and the pros weren't much better prepared.
Josh Moyer: Guys, you were both so close to picking the right name here. So close. But the answer has to be the 1939 season from Iowa’s Nile Kinnick. I don’t think anyone else in the annals of college football had a bigger impact on his team, and I think it’s a tragedy his season didn’t merit a mention on ESPN’s top 16.
Here’s what he accomplished during that eight-game season 75 years ago: He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes, scored 107 of Iowa’s 130 points, pulled down eight interceptions, rushed for 374 yards and five TDs and threw for 638 yards and 11 TDs. Oh, and he also punted (39.9-yard average) -- and returned punts (11.9-yard average) and kickoffs (25.1-yard average). He won the Heisman, the Camp, the Maxwell, the Big Ten MVP – and was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year.
That last distinction is especially impressive, considering Kinnick won it over boxer Joe Louis and baseball MVP Joe DiMaggio, who batted a career-high .381 that year. We'll never see a season like that again. It has to be Kinnick.
Austin Ward: Maybe it's a recency bias. Maybe there's a case to be made that it wasn't actually his best individual season, based on the numbers. But I'm dipping into the current era of college football, and I'm also tabbing Ron Dayne's incredible 1999 campaign as the top choice for the Big Ten.
No offense to the superstars of the early years of the game, because their accomplishments relative to contemporaries are worth honoring. But what Dayne did while steamrolling through every defender in is way is burned into my mind, and the statistics are even more impressive now that a little time has passed.
His 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns are both edged slightly by his breakout freshman campaign in 1996, but the degree of difficulty was evident as defenses devoted their entire game plan to trying to find a way to slow him down, and the attention on his assault on the record books steadily ramped up to put even more pressure on Dayne to deliver. And he did exactly that, sweeping up all the major individual awards, romping to a landslide victory in the Heisman Trophy race while dragging the Badgers on his back to a conference championship and a Rose Bowl victory.
Obviously, comparing players across eras is a challenge. But I'm sticking with the current one, and Dayne's record-setting run in 1999 stands alone.
Five questions. Open answer. And no cheating. Ready? OK, who is the best linebacker in college football history? How about defensive tackle? Defensive end? Cornerback? Safety?
Time’s up. (I told you it was short.) Take a look at your list, and chances are the Big Ten boasts the most selections. Realistically, it’s the only conference that can stake a claim at each position. No other conference can say the same -- especially without repeating teams.
Don't believe me? Let’s take a look through the answer key of the NCAA's best ever, and in honor of The Season -- which looked at the greatest individual season from a player at every FBS school -- we will take a look at the top season by a player at each position:
- Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1964: Did you really rate another linebacker over Butkus? Because that will cost you a few points. Butkus has become the standard by which to judge all other linebacking greats, and it’s not even close. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964, but the AFCA still named him the player of the year. He was one of the most-feared tacklers in the game and carried that reputation over to the NFL. There were other great college 'backers -- Alabama’s Derrick Thomas, Texas’ Tommy Nobis, Penn’s Chuck Bednarik -- but none greater than the man who said his time at Illinois was “eat, sleep and drink football.”
- Defensive tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 1929: If you went with someone else -- Nebraska’s Rich Glover? Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon? Penn State’s Mike Reid? -- there is obviously a chance the team is in the Big Ten now. Regardless, there are definitely a lot of good defensive tackles to pick here. But can you really pick against the guy whose trophy now goes to the best defensive player in the NCAA? Is there really anyone tougher? One unsubstantiated legend explains how Minnesota’s head coach stopped near a field to ask a man for directions, when the man -- Nagurski -- lifted up his iron plow with one hand to point. Then there was Nagurski's reaction when he leveled several players and smashed into a brick wall: "That last guy hit me awful hard." Nagurski is a college legend; he led the nation in rushing in 1929 as a fullback. But the lore of his toughness on defense still carries on.
- Defensive end: Bubba Smith, Michigan State, 1966: You know you’re good when the popular fan chant is, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith belongs in the top two here, for sure, but you couldn’t be at all blamed for choosing Pitt’s Hugh Green. Smith’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Green’s 53 career sacks, but it is possible nobody affected the flow of a game more than Smith. Teams constantly double- or triple-teamed him, or simply avoided his side altogether when it came to calling run plays. That kind of respect meant the Spartans allowed just 51.4 rushing yards a game when Smith was a senior. He helped them finish undefeated (9-0-1) that season and win part of the national title. He was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft a few months later.
- Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997: You want to go with Florida State’s Deion Sanders just to be contrary, don’t you? Well, that is not a bad pick. But it’s also hard to go against the only defensive player to win the Heisman -- especially considering he cruised past runner-up Peyton Manning in the vote. He gets definite bonus points for that. Woodson had eight interceptions that season and even grabbed one from Washington State’s Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Michigan went 12-0 and split the national title with Nebraska that season. There was no more versatile athlete in college football in 1997, and there wasn’t a more dangerous defensive back, either.
- Safety: Jack Tatum, Ohio State, 1970: Move over, Ronnie Lott. Not only does Tatum belong in the conversation as one of college football’s greatest defensive backs, but he also should get some extra credit for his hard hits and "Assassin" nickname. He finished seventh in the 1970 Heisman voting, and his reputation for vicious hits once caused a writer to liken his bearing down on receivers to "the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway." He was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970, and Jim Tressel, when he was the coach, even later termed the Buckeyes' hit of the week the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week." His College Football Hall of Fame bio also reads "best remembered as one of the hardest hitters in all of football history." You can’t get much more official than that.
The Big Ten hasn’t dominated every decade with the top defensive players. But it does have a richer history and deeper tradition on its side, one that started more than a century ago when Michigan’s Adolph Schulz dropped back from the defensive line and gave birth to the idea of a "roving center," or linebacker. It has continued with countless Hall of Fame nominations, a conference-high four No. 1 overall defensive NFL draft picks and some of the best defensive names to ever play the game.
This isn’t just one man’s opinion. More than half of the starting defense on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team -- six of 11 players -- consisted of Big Ten athletes and no, that’s not including Nebraska's Glover. The Walter Camp Foundation’s All-Century Team also featured a Big Ten player at every defensive position. Even ABC’s list of the "25 Greatest Players in College Football" had more defensive players from the Big Ten than any other conference.
When it comes to quantity, maybe other conferences have the Big Ten beat on defense. But when it comes to quality and history? The Big Ten is still tops.
And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.
My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.
The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.
The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.
None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.
The full list:
Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999
The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.
Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.
Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.
The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).
I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?
The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.
But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.
Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.
And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?
It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.
Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.
The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.
But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini:
2013 overall record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB; Steve Hull, WR; Corey Lewis, OT; Jonathan Brown, LB; Houston Bates, DE/LB
Instant impact newcomer: Wes Lunt, QB. There are several options here, but Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer, should win the starting quarterback job and brings a big arm to the pocket in a quarterback-friendly offense. He'll look for two other newcomers, wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek. The Illini also are excited about defensive lineman Jihad Ward, a juco transfer.
OFFENSE: QB: Wes Lunt, So., 6-5, 225; RB: Josh Ferguson, Jr., 5-10, 195; WR: Geronimo Allison, Jr., 6-4, 195; WR: Justin Hardee, Jr., 6-1, 195; WR: Martize Barr, Sr., 6-0, 195; TE: Jon Davis, Sr., 6-3, 240; OT: Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., 6-6, 310; OT: Austin Schmidt, So., 6-6, 295; G: Michael Heitz, 6-6, 310; G: Ted Karras, Jr., 6-4, 310; C: Alex Hill, Jr., 6-3, 310
DEFENSE: DE: Kenny Nelson, Jr., 6-6, 250; LEO: DeJazz Woods, Sr., 6-3, 255; DT: Austin Teitsma, Sr., 6-2, 290; DT: Teko Powell, Jr., 6-3, 305; STAR: Earnest Thomas III, Sr., 6-2, 210; LB: Mason Monheim, Jr., 6-1, 235; LB: T.J. Neal, So., 6-1, 235; CB: V'Angelo Bentley, Jr., 5-10, 190; CB: Eaton Spence, Jr., 6-0, 185; S: Taylor Barton, So., 6-1, 215; S: Zane Petty, Sr., 6-1, 205
SPECIALISTS: K: Taylor Zalewski, Jr., 6-3, 220; P: Justin DuVernois, Sr., 6-1, 190
Biggest question mark: The season could hinge on how newcomers on defense, from transfers like Ward and Joe Fotu to freshmen like Paul James III, transition to this level. Illinois needs instant impacts from several arrivals to repair a unit that finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run in 2013.
Most important game: Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota. This game falls between tough trips to Wisconsin (Oct. 11) and Ohio State (Nov. 1) and immediately after an open week. Illinois' road schedule is absolutely brutal, and to contend for a bowl game, it must play well at home. This is a potentially winnable game that could be the difference between Illinois going bowling or staying home for the third consecutive season.
Upset special: Nov. 15 vs. Iowa. It's hard to see Illinois winning at Nebraska, Wisconsin or Ohio State, and Minnesota at home wouldn't qualify as a huge upset. But Iowa is a preseason West Division title contender, and the teams don't have much familiarity with one another as they last met in 2008. Illinois could catch Iowa looking ahead to showdowns against Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Key stat: Running back Josh Ferguson has 22 career big plays (rush, pass or reception of 20 yards or longer), which is 10 more than any other Illini player.
What they're wearing: Illinois in April announced a new branding identity with Nike, which includes new uniform combinations. One getup has white uniforms and helmets with the numbers and the Block I in orange, and all the jerseys feature an Illini shield along the neckline.
Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Tim Beckman (@coachbeckman), linebacker Mason Monheim (@M_Monheim43), running back Josh Ferguson (@JoshFerguson_6), quarterback Reilly O'Toole (@ReillyOT4), defensive tackle Austin Teitsma (@Teitsma44), wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy (@CoachBellamy) and the official team page (@IlliniFootball).
They said it: "Obviously the defense has to play better, and we've got to score the ball when we get down close. The red zone really was our weakness last year. Also toward the end of the season, you saw more turnovers, we got a little careless with the ball. Those are the two big things." -- senior tight end Jon Davis
Stats & Info projections: 5.47 wins
Wise guys over-under: five wins
Big Ten blog projection: Five wins. Illinois should take another step in Year 3 under Tim Beckman and could reach the six-win plateau, which likely would mean a bowl appearance and secure a fourth year for Beckman in Champaign. But the road schedule -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- doesn't help the Illini, who can't afford many slipups at home. There are too many question marks on defense to see Illinois pulling off a lot Big Ten upsets.
Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the favorite as an $11 bet will net you just $10 profit. But for a confident Boilermakers fan? Well, a $1 bet will get you $300 if they come away with the championship. Purdue’s really not getting much respect here, as newcomers Rutgers (200/1) and Maryland (100/1) both boast the better odds to win the conference.
Penn State is sitting out these odds on account of its postseason ban, but there are definitely some interesting numbers here. And, hey, we want to keep those numbers interesting – so we also decided to match up each team’s bookmaker odds for some off-the-wall odds that are relatively similar.
Obviously, sports odds are a little different from regular odds, but we wanted to have some fun comparing and contrasting with this. So, without further ado, here are Bovada’s odds complemented with comparable real-life numbers:
Purdue 300/1 – The odds of dating a millionaire (1 in 225)
Rutgers 200/1 – The odds of being audited by the IRS (1 in 175)
Illinois 200/1 - Sportsbook odds that Uruguay's Luis Suarez would bite someone at the World Cup (175/1 - and it paid out!)
Indiana 100/1 – Odds of being on a plane with a drunken pilot (117 to 1)
Maryland 100/1 – Odds of being a twin in North America (1 in 90)
Minnesota 66/1 – Odds you’re in jail if you’re an American (1 in 50)
Northwestern 40/1 – Odds of rolling “snake eyes” in a game of craps (1 in 36)
Iowa 14/1 –Odds that you’re colorblind if you’re a man (1 in 12)
Michigan 9/1 – Odds that you have a tattoo (1 in 7)
Nebraska 11/2 – Odds that you’re obese if you live in Colorado (1 in 5)
Wisconsin 9/2 – Sportsbook odds that Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno would cry at Super Bowl 48 (8/2)
Michigan State 15/4 – Odds you work at a job where you never get a paid day off (4 in 16)
Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah preps his Kickoff Luncheon speech
Umm, what else can we ask?
James Franklin was just asked whether playing on natural grass is an advantage. Yep, we're out of questions, media day is over.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 29, 2014
A public service reminder from Nebraska's Bo Pelini
I heard just end of odd exchange that ended when Bo Pelini said: "There is football played outside of the SEC, contrary to popular belief."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) July 29, 2014
Huskers' Abdullah a dual threat at media days
Force is strong at Penn State
James Franklin just called his strength coach a Jedi. The force is flowing through Penn State.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
B1G fashion statements
Ohio State's Urban Meyer on LeBron coming home
Urban Meyer fielding questions about LeBron's return this morning. Said it's big in recruiting and he could play H-back or TE for him.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014