NCF Nation: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

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

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

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

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

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Music City: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

Big Ten Week 1 predictions

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

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

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

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

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

And here they are:

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special teams

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

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

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

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

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
KENOSHA, Wis. -- Northwestern's practice Thursday began with some players, mostly baritone offensive linemen, singing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a prayer." It ended with the annual watermelon eating contest.

The Wildcats didn't exactly look like a team in crisis.

They've endured a lot in the past 10 months, from a season-crippling Big Ten losing streak to the potentially locker room splintering unionization campaign with no resolution. The latest blow arrived Wednesday, as star running back Venric Mark announced he would transfer, the day after he oozed optimism about the 2014 season. To make things worse, Northwestern also learned leading receiver Christian Jones would miss the season with a left knee injury.

Wednesday's news sparked doom-and-gloom forecasts among fans and media members, but there were no dark clouds above the Wildcats as they went through their workout.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMINorthwestern will be without the services of Venric Mark, who has decided to transfer.
"The approach of this group since January, they have been through some things together now and it's on our seniors and leadership council to step up and lead," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I've seen no dip at all, and this is another tough bump in the road."

Fitzgerald provided few details about Mark's departure other than confirming that the running back could have remained on the team but chose to transfer. It's unclear whether Mark would have faced additional playing-time discipline beyond the initial two games if he decided to stay.

Mark left the team's off-site training camp Wednesday morning and the team learned of his departure after practice that night.

"I don't think many people knew about it, if anyone knew about it," senior safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "It was definitely a tough loss. It was a family member that our guys knew [and] love. It's kind of sad to see him go."

Campbell spoke to Mark, who told him that he was "going through some things at home" and needed to be closer to his family in Houston. Mark hopes to play this season but might face several hurdles to be eligible. He has one course to complete this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.

"Like I told him and his mom, we'll help him in any way we can," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see where that goes. That's out of my control. ... It's an unfortunate part of college football, but it happens. The challenge, quite frankly, is on him. We move on. The program moves on. The challenge is always on the individuals."

Northwestern likes its depth both at running back and wide receiver despite the losses of Mark and Jones. Veteran Treyvon Green leads the running back group, but two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, are expected to play this fall, Fitzgerald said. Northwestern also has experience at receiver with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater, the USC transfer who finally looks ready to blossom.

The biggest void could be at punt returner, where Mark earned All-America honors in 2012. Campbell and wideout Mike McHugh both practiced catching punts Thursday. Northwestern lacked big-play ability both on offense and special teams last season, two spots where Mark could have helped.

While the Wildcats seemingly have faced more adversity than most teams in the offseason, Fitzgerald isn't concerned about the cumulative effects.

"Externally, it would seem like it has been maybe overwhelming, but internally I think it’s a lot different," Fitzgerald said. "... I read somewhere that Nebraska lost a couple guys. It's tough stuff, but that's why you recruit guys, that's why you coach 'em up.

"That injury or that circumstance is really tough for a guy, but it's another man's opportunity. It's their job to step up, and I know our guys will."

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
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video» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
After a season of bad breaks (and often bad play) and a spring under national scrutiny, Northwestern hoped its toughest days were in the past.

Venric Mark
David Banks/Getty ImagesVenric Mark's sudden transfer is a tough blow for the Northwestern offense.
But Wednesday proved to be a very tough day for the program, as standout running back Venric Mark announced he will transfer to play closer to his home in Houston. If that stunner wasn't enough, Northwestern also lost veteran wide receiver Christian Jones to a season-ending knee injury sustained in practice.

Mark's transfer leaves more questions than answers at this point. The team announced last week that he would be suspended for the first two games this fall for violating an unspecified team policy. Mark learned of the suspension in June and appealed it, and while he called it "shocking" while speaking with reporters Tuesday, he also accepted it.
"Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts really bad," Mark said Tuesday after practice. "But there's no point in pouting. I'm going to embrace it."

New developments that surfaced after Mark's media appearance and before Wednesday night's announcement contributed to Mark's ultimate decision, ESPN.com has learned. Whether those developments were additional violations/discipline from the school or something unrelated -- like a family issue -- aren't known at this point.
"Northwestern has been an indescribable experience for me," Mark said in a prepared statement. "It has been my home for four years, and has molded me into the man I am. I’m one class shy of the Northwestern degree I’ve worked so hard for, and I will graduate. I’m devastated to leave my second home, but life is full of challenges and I’ve been presented with another one. Right now this is what is best for me and my family."

Coach Pat Fitzgerald added that Northwestern will miss Mark but that this is "unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him."

It will be interesting to see whether Mark ends up at an FCS school or petitions to play immediately at an FBS program like Houston or Rice.

Mark earned All-America honors as a punt returner and second-team All-Big Ten honors as a running back during a breakout 2012 season, where he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and had two punt-return scores. He missed most of last season with leg injuries but was granted an extra year.

This is a significant loss for Northwestern because of Mark's speed and playmaking ability. But the Wildcats have good depth at running back with Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long, and brought in several talented freshman recruits, including Justin Jackson.

The depth at wide receiver also is good with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, and others. Northwestern figures to be more of a pass-oriented offense with Trevor Siemian as the sole quarterback.

The shock value here is certainly significant, perhaps more so than the actual losses. But Northwestern's offense could use all the weapons it can get after a subpar 2013 season.

Check back for more developments.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.
On Thursday, the NCAA Division I board of directors is expected to pass legislation that will allow schools in the Power 5 conferences to set many of their own rules.

Autonomy, as it's being called, could bring a seismic shift in the landscape in college sports. Many Big Ten coaches are hoping it leads to changes in recruiting, as colleague Mitch Sherman details in this piece. It might or might not. But many league coaches told ESPN.com that a more streamlined governing process is what is ultimately needed.

"This gives you a lot better chance of getting things done," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "[What we have now] would be like if Microsoft had to operate under the same restrictions as the mom-and-pop store down the street. It's ridiculous, and it doesn't work."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern's Pat Fitzgerald on college football's need for a streamlined governing process: "Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that's when the cycle says it should happen."
Here is one example: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was one of the first to propose offering players full cost-of-attendance stipends way back in the spring of 2011. All other power conferences were on board with the idea, and NCAA president Mark Emmert championed it. Yet autonomy is now needed to actually allow schools to offer those stipends, as smaller programs eventually balked at the cost and killed it.

Pelini has proposed eliminating signing day, and says he's heard from many coaches who agree with him. He said it should be easy to just get everyone in the same room and decide on what is right. But that is not how it works.

"You have all these committees made up of people with different agendas that meet like twice a year," Pelini said. "It was broken before it ever got started."

Under the new legislation, an 80-member panel would be set up to vote on issues, with a 60-percent majority and three of the Power 5 leagues needing to agree to make changes on autonomous issues. Power leagues would also have a bigger weight in the vote on general matters.

"It's tough for an organization as large as ours to keep up with everything," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "My hopes are that maybe we can streamline some policies, re-evaulate some things and come up with a little more efficient way of operating."

Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who has proposed his own radical changes to recruiting, wants more than just a bigger say in voting. He says that for college football to really make necessary improvements, it needs true, dedicated leadership for the sport. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are pulled in too many directions, Edsall said.

"We don’t have anybody working on college football 365 days a year, seven days a week," he said. "We need a structure where people are sitting down going, 'Here’s our game, how do we make it the best?' Those people have to be working on that every day. Because if not, we get what we’ve got."

Several Big Ten coaches said they would favor a college football czar or commissioner to look out for the best interests of the game. Or at least a small group of people who would do that.

"If not [a czar], then there should be an assistant commissioner in each conference where all they do is work on football, period," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "However you want to structure it, when they wake up, all they do is work on football and when they go to bed, they dream about it.

"Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that’s when the cycle says it should happen. These people should have a much better pulse on the reality of what day-to-day life is like in college football."

Ferentz said the makeup of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which includes former coaches, athletic directors and others, could be a usable model for a leadership group.

Having a commissioner or a leadership committee would set college football apart from other sports, which is why the NCAA probably wouldn't go for the idea. But as Fitzgerald noted, "we’re not talking about this autonomy because of any other sport. We're talking about it because of football."

And autonomy gives the coaches hope that maybe things are about to change for the better.

"We've got to try to get rid of the aircraft carrier and get to a speedboat," Fitzgerald said. "Get to where we can get some real things solved, quit looking at one variable at a time and look at the big picture. Through this, hopefully we can find some solutions to make our sport the best we possibly can."
Red GrangeAP PhotoRed Grange (Illinois) had one of the Big Ten's four signature seasons that took place before 1940.
What constitutes a signature season in the Big Ten? We're not talking about good or very good or even great. These are the single best individual seasons in college football history.

And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.

My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.

The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.

The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.

None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.

The full list:

Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999

The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.

Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.

Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.

The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).

I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?

The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.

But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.

Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.

And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?

It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.

Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.

The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.

But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.
There’s more good news for Ohio State and more bad news for Purdue, as Bovada released its newest odds for the Big Ten title race.

Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the favorite as an $11 bet will net you just $10 profit. But for a confident Boilermakers fan? Well, a $1 bet will get you $300 if they come away with the championship. Purdue’s really not getting much respect here, as newcomers Rutgers (200/1) and Maryland (100/1) both boast the better odds to win the conference.

Penn State is sitting out these odds on account of its postseason ban, but there are definitely some interesting numbers here. And, hey, we want to keep those numbers interesting – so we also decided to match up each team’s bookmaker odds for some off-the-wall odds that are relatively similar.

Obviously, sports odds are a little different from regular odds, but we wanted to have some fun comparing and contrasting with this. So, without further ado, here are Bovada’s odds complemented with comparable real-life numbers:

Purdue 300/1 – The odds of dating a millionaire (1 in 225)

Rutgers 200/1 – The odds of being audited by the IRS (1 in 175)

Illinois 200/1 - Sportsbook odds that Uruguay's Luis Suarez would bite someone at the World Cup (175/1 - and it paid out!)

Indiana 100/1 – Odds of being on a plane with a drunken pilot (117 to 1)

Maryland 100/1 – Odds of being a twin in North America (1 in 90)

Minnesota 66/1 – Odds you’re in jail if you’re an American (1 in 50)

Northwestern 40/1 – Odds of rolling “snake eyes” in a game of craps (1 in 36)

Iowa 14/1 –Odds that you’re colorblind if you’re a man (1 in 12)

Michigan 9/1 – Odds that you have a tattoo (1 in 7)

Nebraska 11/2 – Odds that you’re obese if you live in Colorado (1 in 5)

Wisconsin 9/2 – Sportsbook odds that Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno would cry at Super Bowl 48 (8/2)

Michigan State 15/4 – Odds you work at a job where you never get a paid day off (4 in 16)

Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The countdown started on Monday with the first five players and we climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday, setting the table for our next group of impact performers today.

No. 15: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern Wildcats: Mark is healthy and ready to go again for the Wildcats, and if there was a guarantee that he could return to the elite level he was at in 2012, the veteran rusher would surely be higher on the list. Instead he'll have to prove himself all over again this fall, though Mark will do so behind what should be an improved offensive line that could allow him to flash the explosiveness the Wildcats missed dearly last season.

No. 14: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers: In a league loaded with talented tailbacks, Indiana's dangerous, elusive rusher often goes overlooked. But Coleman is one of the most lethal weapons in the league when he's on the field, and despite playing in just nine games last season, he nearly topped 1,000 yards thanks to his eye-popping 7.3 yards per touch. If he can duplicate that again, the Hoosiers will keep racking up points and more attention will surely come his way.

No. 13: Carl Davis, DT, Iowa Hawkeyes: There may be some uncertainty behind him with Iowa breaking in three new starters at linebacker, but those fresh faces should benefit greatly thanks to the consistent work Davis can provide up front. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound, space-eating lineman doesn't accrue many individual statistics and was credited with just 41 tackles last year, but the job he does occupying blockers is invaluable for the rest of the Hawkeyes around him.

No. 12: Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Even without getting a chance to play the first two games as he wraps up a suspension, Spence still figures to challenge for the league lead in sacks by the time the season ends. The junior's incredible first step off the edge and a stacked group of Buckeyes on the defensive line will allow him to avoid double-teams, and that figures to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks as Spence tries to build on an eight-sack campaign last year.

No. 11: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland Terrapins: The Terps were stung repeatedly by critical injuries last season, but nothing might have hurt as much as seeing Diggs on the ground after breaking his leg against Wake Forest. Without his top-notch speed and ability to break free for big gains at any moment, Maryland's offense wasn't the same minus Diggs on the perimeter. He, too, will have to prove he's back to 100 percent. But Diggs has already suggested he's coming back even faster, which could make life miserable for a few defensive backs in the Big Ten.

Stay tuned as we move into the top 10 on Thursday ...
CHICAGO -- The preseason primping in college football is over. The beauty contest has been canceled. If the playoff selection committee does its job, nothing that is said, written or ranked between now and early October will matter.

And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.

"That football side now matters."

Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking forward to the new College Football Playoff.
Although some question whether any poll should have bearing on the national title race, at least these rankings will be shaped by what happens on the field in the current season. While the playoff technically broadens the national championship field from two to four teams, in reality, the doors are open to dozens of others.

"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."

Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.

"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"

Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.

"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."

The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.

"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."

Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.

So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?

"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
CHICAGO -- With some of the Big Ten's best all gathered in one place for media days, it seemed only natural to poll the players about the best and brightest athletes in the conference.

So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.

The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesShilique Calhoun is one of the most disruptive forces in the Big Ten.
DT Carl Davis, Iowa: "Probably [Shilique] Calhoun from Michigan State. He's a great competitor, and he got the defensive lineman of the year award. I talked to [Iowa OT Brandon] Scherff, and he said that's the best defensive end he went against last year -- and Scherff's a big guy; he can drive guys like 20 yards downfield. And Calhoun is a powerful player; he uses speed and power to his advantage. He's a great player."

S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."

DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."

LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."

S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
CHICAGO -- Pat Fitzgerald wants to be your friend again, Nebraska fans.

Fitzgerald, the Northwestern coach, said Monday at Big Ten media days that he made a "bad joke" this month in describing Nebraska as a "pretty boring state" while speaking to boosters at a Chicago golf outing.

As you might expect, the comments provoked a variety of responses from fans of the Huskers, including some not fit for print.

"I've learned a lot of hashtags on Twitter," Fitzgerald said.

The coach apologized and said he would "own" the mistake, but that he meant no harm by it. Fitzgerald said he was trying to compliment Nebraska fans on how well they travel. The visitors overtook a large portion of Ryan Field in 2012 as the Huskers came from behind to beat the Wildcats 29-28.

Nebraska visits Northwestern on Oct. 18.

"Our fans need to step up," Fitzgerald said.

Last year in Lincoln, Nebraska beat Northwestern 27-24 on a Hail Mary pass from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired. Asked Monday about how long it took to get over that finish, Fitzgerald quipped: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

The coach said he has spent just two days in the state of Nebraska -- not nearly enough time to form an opinion, though he said his players and staff were treated warmly on trips in 2011 and 2013. Northwestern upset Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in the Huskers' first year of Big Ten play.

Nebraska fans heartily congratulated the Wildcats after their 2011 win, according to Fitzgerald. They did the same last season, said the coach, drawing a laugh.

"It's just a great fan base," Fitzgerald said.
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.

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