NCF Nation: Northwestern Wildcats
As bad as things went for Northwestern in 2013, it was still only a handful of plays away from at least matching its nine-win regular season from the previous year. The Wildcats lost on a Hail Mary at Nebraska. They lost in triple overtime to Michigan after the Wolverines pulled off a miraculous field goal at the end of regulation. They fell in overtime on the road at Iowa. They lost by three points to Minnesota and had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State.
We revisit those games not to renew Northwestern fans' heartburn but to bring up a point. If you're looking for a team capable of registering a major turnaround in 2014, look no farther than Evanston, Ill.
The defending Big Ten champions are a prime example of why. Michigan State lost five league games by a total of 13 points in 2012. When a team drops that many close games, it's often a case of bad luck and bad bounces that can turn the other way a year later. The Spartans didn't lose a Big Ten game in 2013 and proved that the 2012 season was merely a blip during an otherwise highly successful run.
Maybe an even better example for Northwestern is Iowa. Like the Wildcats, the Hawkeyes had been a perennial bowl team before stumbling through an uncharacteristic 4-8 season in 2012. Injuries played a big role in Iowa's one-year demise, particularly on the offensive line. With better health in 2013, the Hawkeyes came back strong with an 8-4 regular season and trip to the Outback Bowl.
Fitzgerald's team suffered a slew of crippling injuries last fall, including ones that sidelined their top two offensive weapons, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. By early November, the Wildcats had 20 key players who were either out or severely compromised by bumps and bruises, strains and sprains.
If there's any upside to an injury rash, it's usually that it allows a lot of younger players to gain valuable playing time. Northwestern returns a lot of experience this season, with just about everybody back on offense except for Colter and receiver Rashad Lawrence, while the key losses on defense (defensive end Tyler Scott, middle linebacker Damien Proby) come at positions where ready-made replacements appear available.
Even without Colter, the Wildcats have a senior quarterback in Trevor Siemian who has played in every game the past two seasons. The team got only three games and 183 total yards last year from Mark, a dynamic tailback and kick returner who compiled over 2,100 all-purpose yards in 2012. Given an extra year of eligibility, Mark could have a huge impact on the offense if he can regain his health.
Northwestern was being toasted nationally after a 10-win season in 2012, and it had risen up to No. 15 in the coaches' poll last year before the primetime, "GameDay" loss to Ohio State. Last season's results pressed pause on the program's upward trajectory, but that doesn't mean it has stopped.
The Wildcats will be challenged by a 2014 schedule that includes a nonconference home game against Northern Illinois (Sept. 6) and a much-anticipated matchup at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), plus crossover games against Michigan and Penn State from the East Division. But presumed West favorites Nebraska and Wisconsin both come to Ryan Field. And in what looks like a wide-open division race, Northwestern could certainly factor in.
All this assumes the Wildcats can avoid the same problems as a year ago, and with 11 key players being held out of spring practice, getting healthy is the first order of business. But can things really go as badly as they did in 2013?
"If we didn't have bad luck," Fitzgerald said before the Michigan game, "we wouldn't have any luck at all."
Even a semblance of good luck this fall could make Northwestern the Big Ten's best bet for a turnaround season.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.
New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.
Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.
"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."
Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.
"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."
Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.
After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.
"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.
But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.
"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."
While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.
Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.
"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.
"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."
Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).
There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.
Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.
"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."
He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Colter is a sharp, eloquent and compelling spokesman. But is he enough? It doesn't appear so. The officer overseeing a National Labor Relations Board hearing that will determine if the Northwestern players can unionize on Thursday described the players' case so far as "weak."
Colter testified Tuesday as CAPA's first witness and made some strong claims against Northwestern's football program in an effort to show that playing football is a job and he and other players are employees of the school. But no other players have testified, and CAPA rested its case Wednesday.
CAPA president Ramogi Huma told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that a majority of Northwestern players signed the petition to unionize. Although safety Ibraheim Campbell attended the hearing Wednesday, Colter has been the only one to speak publicly.
John Adam, an attorney representing CAPA, said Thursday that Colter's testimony is sufficient.
The university is presenting its case and, as of earlier today, had three more witnesses to call. Will football coach Pat Fitzgerald be one of them?
If so, expect Fitzgerald to reiterate that he's proud of Colter and the other players for pushing for changes that can help student-athletes, although unionizing isn't the best approach. There are some holes in Colter's testimony that Fitzgerald could expose, but he will never rip Colter publicly or privately.
Although Colter made some valid points in his testimony, his spin on several topics, like morning practices, academic advising, coaches approving players' apartment leases and the school's responsibility for his recent ankle surgery raised some red flags. He went after the Northwestern program head on, which came as a surprise to many.
There were some awkward scenes, like a university lawyer and Colter debating Colter's academic credentials (university tried to build them up, Colter tried to tear them down).
Ultimately, Colter might not be enough to further the union push, but it's not over yet.
The CAPA found both in Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats. Colter is an intelligent, polished spokesman -- not to mention a really good player -- who has never been afraid to speak his mind. The CAPA thinks the Northwestern players add credibility because of their 97 percent graduation rate.
The argument: If Northwestern players are being treated unfairly, imagine what's going on at other places.
But Northwestern, while being the willing choice, is the wrong choice for this campaign.
"Frankly, Northwestern has a great deal of difficulty understanding why it was chosen as a test case," university attorney Alex Barbour said Tuesday during a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago. "The reality is that Northwestern is not a football factory. It is first and foremost a premier academic institution."
Although Northwestern employs some of the same restrictions as programs that could fall under the "football factory" label, no one can intelligently dispute Barbour's point. Anyone who has spent time around Northwestern's program, as I have, understands that the program cares a lot about its players and creates much of its structure with them in mind.
On Tuesday, Colter testified about the restrictions/control Northwestern placed on him and other football players. He painted a very different picture of a program celebrated by many for the way it operates.
According to Colter:
- Morning practices prevent players from taking classes before 11 a.m. They also can't take eight-week summer courses because they conflict with the team's off-site training every August in Kenosha, Wis.
- Players must attend mandatory training table, which comes out of their stipend checks.
- Players are advised not to take certain classes that conflict with football responsibilities. Colter was steered away from taking chemistry and, in his view, a pre-med degree because of football.
- Although the team has a leadership council, on which Colter served, to discuss team-related issues, coach Pat Fitzgerald has the final say (51 percent of the vote). Colter added that the leadership council didn't help develop his leadership skills and that he had to be coaxed into participating. Ouch.
- Players must gain permission from their position coaches and disclose travel information before flying home.
- Strength and conditioning staff monitor all in-season and out-of-season workouts, creating a team (i.e., employer) presence.
- Northwestern is covering only a portion of the cost for Colter's recent ankle surgery. The rest is currently in dispute.
It was a day of heavy scrutiny for a program that prides itself -- and is viewed -- as doing things the right way.
I agree with much of what the CAPA wants for football players, particularly long-term medical coverage. Northwestern should pay all of Colter's ankle surgery costs because he incurred the injury while playing for the Wildcats. The school should also do something for former wide receiver Jeff Yarbrough, who can't afford medical procedures to ease pain stemming from football injuries.
The value of athletic scholarships should be significantly enhanced -- the Big Ten has long pushed for this -- and athletes should have a seat at the table for many of the important decisions that affect them.
Should football players be employees? My answer is no, in large part because walk-ons and athletes from other sports are excluded from this push. But I understand arguments on the other side.
Fitzgerald moved practices to the morning in large part because of academics, as most classes are offered after 11 a.m. More than once, I've been unable to interview a player after practice because he has left for a class.
I spent a week with Northwestern leading up to its Oct. 5 game against Ohio State. The large majority of team activities were completed before 10:30 a.m. Did players put in a lot of hours? Sure. But they had time for school. The academic numbers back it up.
Colter said he wouldn't have been admitted to Northwestern if not for football. That's called an opportunity, one he has maximized, to his credit, earning a 3.2 GPA. The system largely worked in his favor, even if he made it sound like it didn't.
He lost a lot of people with his Navy SEALs/football comparison. He lost me a lot earlier.
If you want a more balanced view of the Northwestern football experience, check out the Twitter timeline of former linebacker Nate Williams.
It's just hard to feel sorry for Northwestern players. They get a pretty good deal at a program that emphasizes academics and doesn't try to win at all costs. Maybe the reality isn't as sunny as the narrative Fitzgerald sells, but it's not too far off.
There are better examples of the restrictions/injustices college football players face and there are plenty of football factories around the country.
Colter is an impressive spokesman who had the courage to speak out, even if he has damaged his relationship with the program.
But it's too bad the real factory workers in college football aren't the ones trying to form a union.
The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.
Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.
Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?
We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.
"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."
Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.
The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
Here are the schedules:
Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska
Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue
Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska
The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.
Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.
The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").
The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).
"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.
"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.
"I would certainly support it."
Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.
"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.
"It makes things really exciting."
America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.
So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.
"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.
"So we're concerned."
The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.
The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.
"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.
Here are some areas of focus:
Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections
In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.
"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."
Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.
Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.
"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."
Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.
Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.
The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.
Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.
"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."
“The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.
Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.” Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."
Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."
Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.
"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."
Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.
Ticketing and timing
Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.
Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.
Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.
Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.
Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.
"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.
As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.
"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."
Luckily, it won't be much longer before teams are back on the field. In fact, Northwestern and Michigan will open their practice sessions in a little more than two weeks. It will be a bit of a longer wait for teams such as Michigan State and Iowa, which won't get started until late March.
But mark your calendars for these spring practice dates, which are subject to change but represent the latest information we have from the schools:
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: TBA
Spring practice starts: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 11
Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 12
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
The union movement is under way in college football, and a Big Ten team is at the center of it. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and a group of Wildcats players made major news Tuesday by announcing their intention of being represented by a labor union and being recognized as employees of universities rather than student-athletes.
Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of reaction to the historic move. Now we want you to weigh in. Today's poll question is: What do you think of the decision by Northwestern players to seek union representation and be recognized as university employees?
1. Agree. These players generate millions for the school and should have a greater voice in key areas such as medical coverage for long-term health problems stemming from football.
2. Disagree. Players receive free education and other perks from the school, and they play sports voluntarily, aware of the injury risks before they take the field.
3. Players deserve more protections and possibly more from their scholarships, but they're not university employees and shouldn't receive employee privileges such as collective bargaining.
Where do you stand on this topic? Time to vote.
The idea of a union for college football players, which is being spearheaded by Northwestern student-athletes, is one that is making major news throughout college sports -- and likely making administrators very nervous.
The NCAA has issued a response to the union proposal. Surprise: It is not a fan. Here's the full NCAA response, as penned by the organization's chief legal officer, Donald Remy:
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.
"Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
"Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips released his own statement this afternoon. Here it is:
"We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.
"Northwestern University always has been, and continues to be, committed to the health, safety and academic success of all of its students, including its student-athletes. The concerns regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that they should have a prominent voice in those discussions.
"We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally.
"Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."
Of course the NCAA is going to fight this idea tooth and nail because it would change the very nature of how college sports are governed and administrated. Northwestern is in a trickier spot because the school does not want to be viewed as being callous to its own students' desire for better treatment and health. Yet, a full blown union of football players and a designation of athletes as employees who can collectively bargain must scare the bejeezus out of any NCAA administrator.
It's clear that this story is really only beginning.
Remember back in September when Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wore a wristband promoting the "All Players United" movement? It was mostly a symbolic protest that Colter and other players across the country staged that day to raise issues about playing conditions for student-athletes.
Well, the movement isn't stopping there. ESPN's "Outside the Lines" is reporting that Northwestern players, led by Colter, have taken steps to be formally represented by a labor union. A group of Wildcats players filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board and received the backing of the United Steelworkers Union.
Tom Farrey reports that at least 30 percent of the members of a group would have to sign union cards for the NLRB to consider such a petition. Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association and a former UCLA linebacker who filed the petition on behalf of the Northwestern players, said an "overwhelming majority" of the Wildcats' 85 scholarship players signed cards.
Some of the goals of the NCPA include guaranteed scholarships in case of injuries and trust funds that players could access after their NCAA eligibility expires to finish their degrees.
A group including Colter and Huma has a press conference scheduled in downtown Chicago at 12:30 p.m. ET Tuesday. We'll have more on this story as it develops, but it's obviously a fascinating move by Northwestern players that could lead to major changes in college sports.
Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.
Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.
Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.
Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.
The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.
"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.
"That's when the stress went out the window."
Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.
Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).
I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.
The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.
The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:
- Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
- How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
- After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
- Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
- Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
- Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
- How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
- Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?
Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
2. As I begin to make my list of teams to watch during this offseason, one of the first to come to mind is TCU. The Horned Frogs went 47-5 from 2008-11, including that 13-0 season in 2010 that finished with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Horned Frogs have gone 11-14 in their first two seasons in the Big 12, 6-12 in conference play. Injuries played a big role, and four conference losses by a total of 11 points in last year’s 4-8 season indicate TCU isn’t far gone. But consecutive mediocre seasons means half the team doesn’t know how to win. Winning -- and losing -- moves fast these days.
3. The Senior Bowl is an annual convention for the 30 NFL staffs that aren’t in the Super Bowl. But college coaches go as well -- some to see old friends, others to network for jobs, and all because they’re on the Gulf Coast recruiting. Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t need to publicize it. He drew a covey of reporters. Minnesota assistant Jay Sawvel made his own pub. He tweeted a pic of head coach Jerry Kill with two former players in the game: Golden Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. Pretty smart.
Let's get started ...
1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.
2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.
3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.
4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.
5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.
6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.
7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.
8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?
9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.
10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.
11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.
12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.