NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The move toward stronger nonconference schedules by the Big Ten and other leagues is already yielding benefits for fans. As teams gear up to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, several high-profile intersectional future matchups have emerged, the latest of them including Michigan-Oklahoma in 2025-26 and USC-Alabama in 2016.

That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?

The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.

"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."

It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.

They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.

"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."

For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."

Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.

While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996.

"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.

"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."

There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.

Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.

"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."

The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?

While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.

But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.

"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."

It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.

"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we’re putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series -- the rest of which can be found here -- concludes with a look at recruiting expenses and why they've grown.

Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can still remember sifting through thick stacks of manila recruiting folders in the mid-90s and reaching for a shelf of VHS tapes hanging above his desk.

There were no real recruiting support staffs to speak of. He'd pop a recruit's game tape into a VCR and then ready himself with a notepad. Fast forward, fast forward. There's the recruit. Fast forward, fast forward.

[+] EnlargeClayton Thorson
Tom Hauck for Student SportsDigital and online technologies are helping schools discover prospects like Clayton Thorson earlier and make more educated scholarship offers.
"Recruiting's changed a lot," Shoop told ESPN.com. "Our recruiting staff, they'll cut up tapes for me now. I don't have to sift through hours of recruiting tape anymore. Our interns will hand me 10 clips for a 2016 safety or something like that. You're investing to recruit good people."

As technology has evolved, so has recruiting -- and recruiting budgets. In just the past six seasons, according to a recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," recruiting budgets encompassing all sports have increased at 13 of 14 Big Ten schools and risen by at least 30 percent at eight of those. Higher gas prices, increased postage and other variables have undoubtedly played a role but several coaches and athletic directors also stressed how bigger staffs -- a result of newer technology -- have inflated those numbers.

At Penn State, Shoop can now rely on two full-time staff members, two graduate assistants and a team of 30 students/interns to help with recruiting. At Northwestern, the recruiting staff has tripled in just the last six to eight years. And, at Ohio State, one full-time position was recently added, in part, to help with recruiting presentations.

"Our technology has increased quite a bit," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a big number for us."

That technology, such as online game film, has placed a bigger focus on immediacy. In an age where a top prospect's highlights can be filmed today and broken down by college coaches tomorrow, staffs can no longer wait until the offseason to evaluate players. And they can't drop everything on a Friday night in October, either, to give up game plan tweaks in favor of digesting film from a high school junior.

"Your coaches are doing this thing in the football season called coaching," said Chris Bowers, Northwestern's director of player personnel. "The time allocation a position coach would spend in March, he's not going to allocate that same amount of time in December or October. He can't. So, yes, there's been an increase in staff for sure.

"I would say at most universities -- I can't speak for everyone -- the recruiting staff is probably two to three times bigger than it was in '06."

In September of 2012, the Wildcats were able to jump early on the Clayton Thorson bandwagon because of that extra staff and technology. The ESPN 300 quarterback, who signed with Northwestern in February, hadn't started under center prior to 2012.

So, when he was due in Evanston, Ill., for a Saturday night game, Bowers noticed his high school coach uploaded his film to the Hudl website that Friday evening. Bowers contacted a GA, requested he cut-up some highlights -- and then forwarded the finished product to the coaching staff. Thorson received an offer that Saturday, partially based on something that was filmed less than 24 hours before.

And if this had all happened just a few years before, then how long would it have taken to make that same judgment call? Months?

"

You're investing to recruit good people.

" -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
"Yes!" Bowers said. "… Even if you were an aggressive recruiting staff, the high school coaches would still need to bring you a DVD or mail it to you -- and they might not do it until the end of the season."

Nationally, recruiting budgets have risen across the board, so it's hardly limited to the Big Ten. Still, the conference seems to be outpacing the competition. Between 2008 and 2012, Big Ten teams placed within the top-10 nationally in recruiting spending on just five occasions. In 2013, four conference teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) placed within the top 10 -- and Illinois wasn't far behind at No. 12.

But coaches and athletic directors were slow to label last season a turning point. After all, it's not as if the staffs had all doubled overnight. Instead, they cautioned, there were other variables that needed to be taken into account. At Wisconsin, for example, the budget is artificially low because the Badgers are provided a private plane and don't need to charter flights as much. At Iowa, a booster donation wasn't included in the recruiting numbers until a few years ago -- which could account for part of the jump. And at Minnesota, due to the campus location, increased flight and hotel expenses impacted the budget more than schools elsewhere.

"We can't drive as much as others," Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague added. "So we've got to keep building the budget and being aggressive."

Regardless, the trend of spending more on recruiting each season appears to be a difficult one to stop. Whether it's an increased staff or costs elsewhere, few universities take a step back in spending.

But, on the bright side, it could be worse -- at least the era of "Be kind; please rewind" is long gone.

"That required a significant amount of manpower hours," Shoop said with a laugh. "And in some ways, now, it's a pro model. It's not like you have an entire scouting department, but I'm sure we're getting closer to that model now than ever before now, as far as people whose sole responsibility is player evaluation. ... It's incredible how the process has accelerated."

After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we're putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series continues today with a look at the revenue generated through branding initiatives like licensing and sponsorships.

It's fitting that the University of Michigan's athletic director has the word "brand" in his last name. In the Big Ten, there's no bigger brand than Michigan.

Ticket sales, donations and television dollars are the biggest revenue-drivers for college programs. But one of the more revealing categories in the recent "Outside the Lines" database encompasses revenue from licensing, sponsorships, advertising and royalties. It all adds up to branding, and in the Big Ten, Michigan is king.

Only Texas generates more money from licensing, sponsorships, advertising and royalties than Michigan, which has ranked second among public schools in the category for the past five fiscal years (2008-09 through 2012-13). Michigan's reported intake spiked from $11,087,101 in fiscal year 2007-08 to $22,473,192 in 2012-13. Although there's a substantial gap between Texas ($33,421518) and Michigan, there's also a financial canyon between Michigan and third-place Oklahoma ($12,805,600), Ohio State ($12,714,758) and Nebraska ($11,895,378).

"We really think of ourselves as a global brand," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told ESPN.com. "In my previous life, I ran a company [Domino's Pizza] that at the time was doing business in about 65 countries. I never visited a country where I didn't see at least one symbol of the University of Michigan. There was at least one kid wearing a jersey, some guy wearing a hat, some Michigan shirt, some 'Go Blue' thing.

"It's remarkable how our brand is way beyond a domestic brand. I'm not sure if other programs necessarily enjoy that recognition."

Many Big Ten schools have massive alumni bases. But Michigan's alumni distribution, combined with the school's academic reputation and athletic tradition, has created a branding giant.

Brandon attributes the revenue differential mainly to the makeup of Michigan's alumni. Another driver is the way Michigan markets its athletes.

"You could even trace it back to the early '90s and the Fab Five, you could trace it to Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson," said Manish Tripathy, a marketing professor at Emory University who helps manage the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics project. "Some of these large figures and personalities have contributed to people who are not alumni still identifying with the Michigan brand."

The revenue from licensing, sponsorships, advertising and royalties accounts for a small percentage of Michigan's overall athletic revenue, which Brandon pegs at about $150 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year. It's the same for other Big Ten schools.

But Brandon sees potential in these areas, especially licensing, which he thinks can grow "much faster" than the rate of inflation.

"I'd like to build that more," Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said of licensing. "I know we're going to do an aggressive job. Part of that also is winning at a higher level in football and basketball. When I was at [North] Carolina, we were No. 1 [in licensing] my whole entire six years working there, and I was the liaison, so I saw how we built it. But it wasn't built overnight."

Minnesota has excelled in revenue through licensing/sponsorships/advertising/royalties, ranking fourth among Big Ten schools for the past six fiscal years and in the top 15 nationally each year. Minnesota associate athletic director Chris Werle said the school's long-term agreements with Coca-Cola, Dairy Queen and Learfield Sports, its media rights holder, bring in escalating revenues.

Like Minnesota, Iowa has been in the top 20 in licensing/sponsorships/advertising/royalties since 2007-08. Associate athletic director Rick Klatt said Iowa has tremendous local support and national brand recognition with its Tiger Hawk logo, but must push to broaden its reach.

"It's gaining shelf space in nontraditional markets," Klatt said. "When we can gain some kind of marketing presence in a sports store in San Antonio when you're down there for the Alamo Bowl, if we can find a little niche for the Iowa Hawkeyes to be next to Michigan, Texas and USC, we'e making some headway. That's a victory."

Klatt knows Iowa can't become Michigan overnight, but with the right success on the field and strategies off of it, the brand can expand.

"It's a quantity thing, a history thing, a tradition thing," Klatt said. "Michigan, Penn State -- they have some numbers that work in their favor. But that doesn't mean we can't compete."

Most Big Ten schools have seen gradual revenue increases in licensing/sponsorships/advertising/royalties, and most have been fairly steady in the national rankings. But there are some exceptions: Ohio State went from 24th in 2007-08 to fourth in 2012-13. Illinois' revenue has flat-lined, and the school has gone from 25th in 2007-08 to 36th in 2012-13.

Penn State saw a significant drop from fiscal year 2010-11 ($5,984,967) to 2011-12 ($4,444,416) -- the year of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal -- before rebounding in 2012-13 ($5,086,773).

"Locally, the support is still there; people are still paying to go watch the team," Tripathi said, "but on a national level, there has been a bit of a hit on the brand. That's manifesting in the decline in sales of merchandise."

[+] EnlargeDave Brandon and Gene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith preside over marquee brands in the national scope.
Schools approach licensing and sponsorships in different ways, but consolidation is a common trait. All but four Big Ten members use the Collegiate Licensing Company, a division of IMG, to represent them in licensing agreements.

About a decade ago, Michigan significantly reduced the number of licenses it awarded to produce products. Kristen Ablauf, the school's director of trademark licensing, said Michigan used to have about 70 licensees for headwear, some of which weren't producing merchandise. Now there are only five national licensees -- LIDS and Dick's Sporting Goods among them -- as well as 12 local licensees.

"That has really helped increase revenues because we're targeting specific categories and channels as opposed to just licensing anybody," Ablauf said. "Along with our licensing agency, we work to put specific retailer programs together to make sure Michigan does maintain its status as a national school."

The Big Ten wants to become a more national conference as it expands to the East Coast with Rutgers and Maryland. The move should help Rutgers, which has generated the lowest revenues in licensing/sponsorships/advertising/royalties.

It also creates new branding opportunities for existing league members.

"The retail industry will take a look at and say, 'We need to have a presence in our store to satisfy the Big Ten consumer,'" Klatt said. "Our challenge will be, when they start choosing which schools to give presence to, they're clearly going to give some to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State. But that next tier, we have to make sure we're in that."
After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we're putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series continues today with a look at the money Big Ten teams have paid to opponents over the years.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images Ohio State is the league's largest athletic program with 36 varsity sports and a massive, often sold-out football stadium.
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis was scheduled to meet with reporters during the lunch break of Wednesday's Big Ten administrators' meetings, but he showed up earlier than expected.

He jokingly offered a possible reason for his escape.

"It seems like every vote we take," Hollis said, "costs us $100,000."

Expenses are rising for major-conference schools, especially with the welfare of college athletes in the national spotlight. One area that continues to get more expensive is the cost of home games, and the prices will continue to rise.

While Big Ten schools make millions from football games in their campus stadiums, they also are paying large guarantees for opponents to show up and play. According to recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," Big Ten teams paid nearly $42 million to visiting teams in all sports during the 2012-13 season (this includes Rutgers and Maryland, but not Northwestern, a private institution that doesn't report figures). The Big Ten, with its big football stadiums and broad-based athletic programs, paid more to opponents than any other conference. It's not a surprise considering many Big Ten teams make more than $3 million per football home game.

In 2012-13, Ohio State led the nation in money paid to opponents ($7,999,881), followed by Minnesota ($4,799,383) and Wisconsin ($3,987,864). Two other Big Ten teams -- Michigan State ($3,650,864) and Indiana ($3,375,562) -- finished in the top 10, and 10 schools finished in the top 25.

Ohio State has spent more on visiting teams in each of the past six years, averaging $7.4 million per year. Its total spent since 2007-08 ($44,418,002) is more than double that of the next Big Ten school, Indiana ($21,576,798). The simple explanation for the disparity: Ohio State is the league's largest athletic program with 36 varsity sports, and with a massive, often sold-out football stadium, it spends because it can.

"We’ll net north of about $7 million off of each [home football] game," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "That's why we can afford to pay that guarantee. If you're over 100,000 seats -- you look at Michigan, us, Penn State, Tennessee -- you have to look at their average ticket price, which is typically north of $75. Then, you're probably looking at $5-7 million that those stadiums are netting individually.

"So when you take out a $1-million, $1.2-million, $1.3-million guarantee, you can handle it."

According to the Associated Press, Ohio State will pay more than $2 million in guarantee money to its three home nonconference opponents this season (Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Kent State). The Buckeyes also will receive an $850,000 guarantee for playing Navy in Baltimore.

These fees aren't new to college football. Many major-conference schools with big stadiums have been spending $800,000 or more on guarantees since the latter part of the last decade. In 2008, both Ohio State and Michigan State paid more than $5.5 million to road teams, finishing first and second nationally, respectively.

"We're in the market, we're part of that market because we’re a large stadium," Smith said. "It's just what you have to do today to get the mix."

The problem going forward is inventory, a word used by several Big Ten athletic directors at last week's meetings. Although the Big Ten moves to a nine-game league schedule in 2016, which reduces the number of nonconference games to schedule, the demand for nonleague home games remains high, if not higher. Big Ten teams will have five conference road games every other year, so to get the seven home games most need to meet budgets, all three nonleague games must be at home.

The Big Ten also has placed a moratorium on scheduling FCS opponents, a route many Big Ten teams have taken because FCS schools don't require return games and have relatively lower guarantee fees. So Big Ten teams in many cases must find FBS teams willing to play on the road without requiring a return.

"The issue with nine is inventory," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "You're trying to schedule all [FBS] schools. The inventory becomes questionable. People don't want to go home-and-home. You try to stay at seven games at home, it's very difficult to do that in the year that you have four Big Ten games at home. So there are some issues."

One of them is cost.

"As the supply shrinks," Hollis said, "those that are in the window of who you want to play have the ability to ask for more."

Like many college football observers, Smith had hoped both the SEC and ACC would join the Pac-12, Big 12 and, soon, the Big Ten in adopting nine-game league schedules. But he didn't see it as a competitive balance issue.

The problem: inventory.

"If they'd gone to nine, obviously there's a lot more inventory out there because they would only schedule three [nonleague games]," Smith said. "Everyone is trying to schedule the same types of nonconference games in the same window of time, September. It's challenging."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, while reiterating the need to avoid scheduling FCS opponents, says he will assist member schools with the scheduling dilemma. Some schools are exploring neutral-site games, which are lucrative and have gained greater popularity in recent years. Penn State AD Dave Joyner, who will watch the Nittany Lions open the 2014 season in Ireland, said, "It's almost like having a home game."

But Big Ten ADs also have been resistant to move games -- and the money they generate -- away from local markets.

"I don't know about the neutral-site thing," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "We just built a stadium on campus, a beautiful new 50,000-seat facility. That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars."

Hollis also has stiff-armed the neutral-site trend, but he acknowledged last week that MSU and longtime rival Notre Dame are discussing a neutral-site contest, possibly in Chicago.

"Some of us aren't traditional thinkers," he said. "You can come up with some creative ways that make sense for student-athletes, fans and … that you can meet your financial challenges."
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Big Ten athletic directors began their annual spring meetings Tuesday and discussed the proposed NCAA governance changes, scheduling, athlete welfare and other items.

Here are some notes from Day 1:

[+] EnlargeBig Ten Logo
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesThe Big Ten athletic directors will wrap up their annual spring meetings on Wednesday.
ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS

Although increasing athletic scholarships to federal cost of attendance figures isn't a new topic in the Big Ten -- the league first proposed it three years ago -- it generated plenty of discussion Tuesday as change is finally on the horizon. There are details that must be worked out concerning Title IX and how overall athletic budgets will be affected.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said a full cost-of-attendance plan for all Illini athletes would cost approximately $1 million per year. But the numbers vary by institution.

"You're going to have to have a standard formula all schools are going to have to adhere to," Thomas said, "knowing that the numbers might still look different."

Added Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst: "Over time, each institution is sharing how financial aid works on their campus and how they see a possible opportunity to put more resources in the system to cover the gap."

The ADs also discussed how to improve travel for players, whether it's getting them home or getting their families to events.

"Is it two trips? Is it three? Is it just going home a certain time of the year? Or is it bowls? Or families visiting?" Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "Those details are yet to be worked out I think, and how does that factor into the full cost of attendance?"

FOOTBALL SCHEDULING

Despite a move to nine league games in 2016, non-league scheduling remains a challenge for the ADs, especially with the Big Ten prohibiting contests with FCS opponents. Thomas admits the inventory of opponents is smaller, which can increase costs of bringing in opponents that don't require return games. He added that a nine-game league schedule makes it harder to play neutral-site games because of the demand for seven home games every year.

"It's hard for us to move off campus and take a game away from our stadium, that's my biggest issue," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars. You've got to serve the people."

[+] EnlargeDave Joyner, James Franklin, Rodney Erickson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State athletic director Dave Joyner (left) praised new football coach James Franklin (center) on Tuesday.
Joyner said there has been some talk about Big Ten teams scheduling other league opponents in non-league games, something former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin brought up years ago. "That's a unique concept we could talk about more," Joyner said. "That's a possibility."

Despite the SEC and ACC announcing recently that they would keep an eight-game league schedule, the Big Ten has no plans to ditch its move to nine.

ODDS AND ENDS

  • Joyner said new Penn State coach James Franklin has been "everything I thought he was an more, in a positive way," during his first four months on the job. "He's high energy, he's high ethics, he's high competitiveness," Joyner said.
  • Eichorst said he has had nothing to do with the improving public image of coach Bo Pelini, who has boosted his popularity since his blowups both during and after last season's loss to Iowa. "Bo's the same guy that I met when I arrived on campus," Eichorst said. "I see those sort of qualities from him on a day-to-day basis. What's out there in the community and the perception and all that other sort of stuff is certainly hard to control. He's a good ball coach, a good person. He's serious about his craft and very disciplined in his approach and we're lucky to have him at Nebraska."
  • Teague said the upcoming College Football Playoff generated little to no discussion Tuesday. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, a member of the selection committee, likely will address the group before the meetings end Wednesday.

More to come Wednesday as the meetings finish. Delany will address the media around 3 p.m. ET.
Rutgers on Tuesday dismissed Philip Nelson from the program a day after the quarterback transfer was charged with assault.

Nelson faces first- and third-degree assault charges for allegedly kicking a man in the head early Sunday morning outside a Mankato, Minn., bar. Nelson was released from jail Monday night. Isaac Kolstad, a former Minnesota State football player, remained in critical condition with serious head injuries as of Monday afternoon.

"The Rutgers football family's thoughts and prayers are with Isaac Kolstad and his family," Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said in a prepared statement.

The decision comes as no surprise. Nelson, who started 16 games for Minnesota the past two seasons, transferred to Rutgers in January. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison.
video Disturbing details emerged Monday about the assault allegedly involving former Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson, now at Rutgers. Nelson was charged Monday with both first-degree assault and third-degree assault.

The victim of the assault, former Minnesota State football player Isaac Kolstad, remained in critical condition as of Monday afternoon, according to his father.

Philip Nelson
AP Photo/Blue Earth County JailIf convicted, Philip Nelson faces up to 25 years in prison.
Nelson was released from jail Monday night and left with a towel over his head to hide his face from cameras.

Here's what came to light Monday:

  • According to a criminal complaint, Nelson kicked Kolstad in the head while Kolstad was lying on the ground early Sunday morning outside a bar in Mankato, Minn. Surveillance video showed Kolstad first struck Nelson in the back and then was hit in the head by another man, who police are trying to identify. Nelson then approached Kolstad on the ground.
  • The criminal complaint states that the dispute started when a bouncer at the Blue Bricks bar kissed Nelson's girlfriend's hand. Nelson became upset and possibly confused Kolstad for the bouncer when they were outside the bar.
  • According to Mankato Police Sgt. Jeff Knutson, who reviewed surveillance video of the incident, Kolstad appeared to spark the altercation when he "raised his arm and struck Nelson in the back area with the punch." The unknown man then struck Kolstad, who witnesses say was knocked out before Nelson allegedly kicked Kolstad's head "like a soccer ball." Steph Stassen, who witnessed the incident, told the Star Tribune that Kolstad was "unconscious after the first punch" and didn't brace himself as he fell to the ground, hitting his head.
  • Police released video of both Nelson and the unidentified suspect leaving the scene. Nelson told police he doesn't know the other man. He also said he didn't remember kicking Kolstad in the head.
  • The entire incident took only five to 10 seconds, according to police, but it left Kolstad with a fractured skull and a swollen brain, fighting for his life. Even if he survives, he could have some permanent brain damage. Kolstad is the father of a 3-year-old girl, and his wife is pregnant with their second child. Mankato's public safety director said Nelson and Kolstad knew each other from their high school football days in Mankato.
  • Nelson's attorney said Monday that his client wasn't the aggressor in the incident and that it isn't certain who caused Kolstad's injuries. A neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic told Mankato police that a combination of the punch and the kick could have caused the damage to Kolstad's head.
  • Nelson faces up to 25 years in jail if convicted of both felony assault charges. Patrick McDermott, the assistant Blue Earth County attorney, said, "You have some decisions that were made by some individuals that probably had some impaired thinking, and those decisions will affect many lives for years to come."

Nelson played at Minnesota the last two seasons, starting 16 games at quarterback, before transferring to Rutgers in January. He remains on the Rutgers roster, and Rutgers hasn't commented since releasing a short statement Sunday that it is gathering information on the incident.

An incredibly sad situation all around. More to come.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
video

If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
In the history of California high school football, no player has ever caught more passes for more yards than current Minnesota sophomore Drew Wolitarsky.

Think about that for a second. These aren't high school records in Alaska or Wyoming. They're from one of the most populous, talent-rich states in the country. Wolitarsky broke the records held by Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith, who could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeDrew Wolitarsky
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, Minnesota's Drew Wolitarsky had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl vs. Syracuse.
So ... still think the Gophers lack talent at wide receiver? Of course, high school is high school, and Wolitarsky understands that.

"After high school, those records meant a lot to me," he told ESPN.com. "But once I got to college, it's time to forget about that and make a name for yourself at the next level. No one is really going to remember you from high school. They're going to say, 'Oh, that guy played really well in college and in the NFL.'"

He's working on becoming known for his performance in college, and the passing-game starved Gophers are counting on Wolitarsky taking the next step this season.

They threw him into the fire as a freshman last season, when Wolitarsky made four starts and caught 15 passes for 259 yards. That makes him Minnesota's leading returning wideout, just ahead of Donovahn Jones, another guy who played as a freshman in 2013. The youth at receiver and rotating door under center contributed to the team's passing problems last season, but Wolitarsky has seen improvement this spring with quarterback Mitch Leidner taking charge.

"We have a consistent quarterback now, one who we know is going to be the guy," he said. "So during the offseason, when we got together to throw with him and run all the routes, we didn't have to keep switching, keep wondering who was going to be the guy or who we should get closest with."

Wolitarsky didn't have to worry about those things in at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he starred for four years and maintained tight relationships with his quarterbacks. He finished with a record 281 catches and 5,148 yards in his career, and his 52 touchdowns are second-most in state history.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Wolitarsky's best in-state offers were from San Jose State and San Diego State. Arizona also recruited him. But few big-name programs came calling.

"It was a rough time at one point," he said. "I was pretty angry, pretty bitter. I don't really care any more because I chose a great school and am really happy with my choice. But it was frustrating."

Recruiting service scouting reports on Wolitarsky knocked him for his lack of top-end speed. Called him a possession receiver. He has heard it all before.

"A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed," he said. "If you can get open, you can play the position."

Minnesota doesn't dip its toes in California recruiting very often, but needed receivers and went hard after Wolitarsky. He said he fell in love with the campus and the city on his visit and that he liked the idea of trying to build something special under Jerry Kill's coaching staff.

A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed. If you can get open, you can play the position.

Minnesota wideout Drew Wolitarsky, who didn't receive many big-time offers out of high school.
Still, though Wolitarsky joked that he has "some Canadian blood" in him, adjusting to the harsh Minneapolis winters hasn't been easy on the Southern California native. He said he never even bothered to check the weather report back home, where it's almost always sunny. Now he does so every day.

"Having to wake up and put on three layers of clothes is a lot different," he said. "I'm used to putting on shorts and a T-shirt and being good for the whole day."

Last season proved to be an adjustment on the field, too, especially when going up against fast, physical cornerbacks such as Michigan State's in the season finale. But Wolitarsky, who at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds isn't easily bumped off his routes, gradually became more and more confident. In the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, he set career-bests with four catches for 94 yards and his first touchdown.

Ironically, though, for a guy who caught so many passes in high school, Wolitarsky's best-known play right now is a ball he didn't grab. Leidner threw a Hail Mary to the end zone in the waning seconds, and the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off Wolitarsky's hands.

"I try not to think about that," he said. "But a lot of people ask me about it. I just tell them, I couldn't see it. The DB was right over me. I couldn't see [the ball] coming in, but I just felt it hit my hands. And I was like, 'That's going to look bad on the big screen.' And then I looked and was like, 'Oh, gosh.'"

That's OK. Given his track record and ability, Wolitarsky will likely make many more big catches before his college career is over.
If Minnesota continues to ascend, its coaches will start bringing in more recruits who resemble Ra'Shede Hageman.

Until then, the staff will continue to find prospects who resemble Theiren Cockran -- and then go to work.

"We're in the department of development," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.

As Minnesota says goodbye to Hageman, a freakish defensive tackle who achieved his prodigious potential in his final college season, it turns to Cockran, the latest developmental discovery for the Gophers' coaches. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are the launching points for any discussion of Big Ten defensive ends entering the 2014 season. Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence inserted themselves into the conversation with impressive sack totals last season.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaDefensive end Theiren Cockran will command a lot more attention from Minnesota's opponents in 2014.
But Cockran belongs as well, even if many around the league haven't heard of the Minnesota junior. He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles per game (four in 13 contests) and finished third in the league in sacks per game (7.5) and 10th in tackles for loss (10). Cockran had three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in league games.

"His development is coming along as we thought it would," Phelps said. "We knew it wasn't going to be in Year 1. Year 2 was a learning experience for him, and he's been able to become a better football player because of that."

Opinions differ on how much Cockran weighed when he made traveled from Homestead, Fla., to Minneapolis. Cockran says he was around 215 pounds, but Phelps admits, "That might be stretching it a little bit."

Minnesota listed the 6-foot-6 Cockran at 210 pounds in its announcement of the 2010 recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Cockran was only about 190 pounds when the staff, then at Northern Illinois, first started recruiting him.

"We thought, hey, that's a kid we might have a chance to [sign]," Claeys recalled, "because he won't have the size that some of the big boys are looking for. Some of those you hit on. Some don't get big enough to help you and some do."

Despite Cockran's size, the Minnesota coaches always pegged him as a defensive end, even in the Big Ten. They rarely shy away from lighter ends, especially if they have superior speed to rush the passer.

Cockran had both speed and length, thanks to a wingspan of 6 feet, 9.5 inches, which helps keep offensive tackles away. But he needed to get bigger.

"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally through the weight training and things like that, eating healthy and trying to stay healthy."

He now weighs about 250 pounds. Phelps would like to see him around 255 when the season kicks off, and Cockran's long-term target weight is between 260-265 pounds.

Cockran knew he didn't come in as a finished product. He also knew what can happen with the right development. Minnesota coaches often talk about Larry English, a defensive end who added about 30 pounds during his time at Northern Illinois, won consecutive MAC defensive player of the year awards and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

"I've definitely watched him on film," said Cockran, who redshirted in 2011 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012, recording six tackles and a sack. "He didn't take any plays off. He chased plays down from the back side; he chased plays down on the field. That's what made him a great player."

Cockran also benefited from being around Hageman, a former high school tight end and basketball star who used his length, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle, a spot typically reserved for boxier players. Hageman was one of the first players Cockran met after arriving at Minnesota.

"I was wondering to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Cockran recalled. "Ever since, I watched him. He plays with aggression. He loves the game. He showed me how to be physical, how to train in the offseason, how to work hard in the weight room.

"I took a lot from him."

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive standout Ra'Shede Hageman has been a mentor to Theiren Cockran the last three years.
Hageman led off every opponent's scouting report. His size helped him knock down eight passes, second-most on the team, and he led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss.

Without Hageman commanding double-teams in the middle, Cockran figures to get more attention this fall.

"He opened some people's eyes a little bit around the conference," Phelps said. "With Ra'Shede's departure, who might be the next big threat? T.C. might be that guy, but he's got to continue to be that threat off the edge of a guy who can beat you with speed and power."

Cockran had some contact with the University of South Florida during the recruiting process, but few in-state schools showed much interest. It didn't bother him, as he wanted to leave Florida and experience "something new."

After Jerry Kill moved from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, Cockran visited campus just before signing day.

A late January trip to Minneapolis might not be an ideal recruiting tool, especially for a player from sun-splashed Florida. But for Cockran, it worked.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "Compared to places I've been, people here in Minnesota are very nice, very welcoming. They have great attitudes here. They welcome you with open arms."

Cockran will be a fan favorite this fall if he builds on his strong sophomore season. The skinny recruit from Florida is now a fourth-year junior who boasts a unique mix of height, length, speed and power.

He also knows what it takes to be great after being around Hageman and studying defensive ends such as English and Aldon Smith, the long-armed San Francisco 49ers star who Cockran tries to mimic in games.

"He's really on a true timeline," Claeys said, "in developing as a player."
Tracy Claeys served as acting head coach when Minnesota went on its historic four-game winning streak last season. That brought Claeys plenty of national acclaim and recognition, including some calls for him to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Mostly, though, it made him squirm.

"I felt very uncomfortable about all that," he told ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTracy Claeys led the Gophers to a 4-3 record last season in Jerry Kill's absence.
That's because Claeys views himself as simply a piece of a larger team effort. When Jerry Kill needed to take some time away from the Gophers to deal with his epilepsy, Claeys did his part by filling in. He didn't think he deserved any more credit than the rest of the staff or the players when the team put together its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years.

So now Claeys is perfectly happy sliding back into his familiar role as defensive coordinator this spring.

"I'm looking forward to kind of hiding again," he said. "Getting back to working with the kids and just coaching ball."

Claeys could have parlayed his tenure as interim leader -- he was officially 4-3 in place of Kill, who remained very active during much of that time -- into a head-coaching gig elsewhere. A few schools contacted him this offseason to gauge his interest, but Claeys said he declined to even interview for another job.

Instead, he's content to remain with Kill. This will be their 20th season together, beginning in 1995 when Claeys was Kill's defensive line coach at Saginaw State and continuing as he served as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

Claeys is one of several assistants who have worked for Kill for at least a decade. Kill made sure they were rewarded when he signed his recent contract extension, and Minnesota guaranteed that its staff salary pool would rank among the top six in the Big Ten. Claeys made just under $350,000 last year in base pay, plus an extra $13,000 per week while he was interim coach. He could soon be earning more than he would have made as a head coach at a MAC-level school.

Money, however, isn't the main consideration for the 45-year-old Kansan. He likes working for Kill and said his goal has never been to become a head coach. A few years ago, Claeys had a conversation about career arcs with Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, who has worked as an assistant under Frank Beamer since 1987.

"When you can go to work every day and like the people you work with and you know what's expected of you, the grass isn't always greener," Claeys said. "There's nothing wrong with staying where you're at and being successful, and Bud reaffirmed some of those things in our conversation."

Any small group of people -- whether it’s a rock band or a married couple -- will have its disagreements and difficulties while working and/or living in close quarters over a long period of time, especially in a high-stress environment like sports. Claeys said that's no different with the tight-knit Gophers staff.

"We have meetings, and some of them get a little heated," he said. "But everybody knows that when the meeting is over, the decision has to be what's best for the football team.

"The bottom line is, coach is a very caring person. We feel like a reason we've been able to build programs and have success is the consistency of our staff."

Claeys said Kill had often consulted with him on the headset about what to do in situations like fourth-down plays. So once he had full play-calling responsibilities last season in Kill's absence, he felt prepared and was confident the entire staff was on the same page.

Claeys is glad that Kill is now back handling media obligations and boosters. He can focus on working with the defense this spring and figuring out ways to replace starters like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. Maybe the right head coaching opportunity will come along someday, but Claeys won't be angling for it.

"As long as I'm having fun and am wanted, I'll stick around," he said. "I've told the Kill-er, whenever you want to make a change, come in and tell me, and when that time comes, I'll go back and home and tend bar."

It might be another 20 years before that happens.

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