NCF Nation: Ohio State Buckeyes

At this time last year, Texas A&M was the epicenter of college football during spring practice. The Aggies' 2013 spring game drew a record crowd. ESPN televised the game, "Johnny Football" was the face of the sport and it helped swing in-state recruiting momentum from the Longhorns.

It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.

“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”

The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State coach Urban Meyer likes the opportunity to get young players, such as redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, some playing time in a spring game.
Spring games are at somewhat of a crossroads in college football. They’re hardly fighting off extinction as 54 FBS programs held games this past weekend. But the watered-down product is giving coaches reason for pause. The argument against holding the spring game is picking up steam, and coaches are questioning the value in using the final spring practice on a half-speed “dog-and-pony show,” as Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship puts it.

A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.

Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.

“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”

Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.

“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”

However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.

Fisher To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.

-- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”

Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.

“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”

There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.

Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.

A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.

“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”

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Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThese Virginia students received a better-than-front-row view of the Cavaliers' spring game.
Fans and alumni are maybe the most overlooked part of the equation of whether it is realistic to ditch the spring game. Florida State director of marketing Jason Dennard said it would be nearly impossible to change the Seminoles’ spring game model, which begins with downtown events Friday. The school even receives grant dollars from the local economic development council to fortify the weekend lineup.

“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”

While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.

“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.

Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.

“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Stan Drayton isn’t picky about how the job gets done.

The Ohio State running backs coach doesn’t need his next starter to have all the same physical qualities Carlos Hyde brought to the backfield. Drayton doesn’t even care if he needs more than one guy to fill the void Hyde left behind after his final season with the Buckeyes, and he’s not in a hurry to settle on a depth chart or figure out how to distribute carries.

In terms of fitting some sort of ideal mold for a tailback, Drayton has no preference as he sorts through a handful of options with different sizes and strengths. As for the details of how to match Hyde’s wildly productive, staggeringly efficient work on the ground, it doesn’t appear to make any difference to Drayton whether it takes one guy or five, as long as the results are the same.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBri'onte Dunn, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, redshirted last season and is squarely in the mix for playing time.
“He has to be replaced,” Drayton said. “This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up. I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up.

“Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t a one-man show on the ground last year, and no matter what happens at running back this spring, they still won’t be in the fall with Braxton Miller and his talented legs returning at quarterback.

But Hyde was far and away the main focus at tailback last season, accounting for more rushing attempts than the rest of Ohio State’s stable of running backs combined despite missing three games to suspension. And now that he’s gone, those 208 carries he had as a senior will have to go somewhere, and the race is already heated as the new candidates scramble to claim them.

Rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott appears to be first in line after shining in a limited role a season ago, averaging 8.1 yards per carry while showing off his explosive speed and the ability to absorb or inflict punishment with his 225-pound frame.

Rising senior Rod Smith isn’t far behind and is doing everything he can to finally turn his natural talent into production before it’s too late. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a somewhat unexpected redshirt season during his second year at Ohio State and is impressing with his improved grasp of the offense. Warren Ball and early enrollee Curtis Samuel both are squarely in the battle for playing time as well, with the latter turning heads during offseason workouts and potentially becoming an option to play a hybrid role as a rusher and receiver when he gets completely healthy.

So even if the Buckeyes can’t settle on just one guy to fill Hyde’s shoes, they’re clearly not short of options.

“It’s real competitive, and coach Drayton really has us going,” Dunn said. “Everybody wants to play for Ohio State, so we’ll go as hard as we can.

“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, and by his example last year, it just taught us all a lot. ... Everybody is just going hard and trying to go for the spot. Our mindset is to be the best back in the country.”

Hyde made his case last season, finishing with 1,521 yards, 15 touchdowns and a resume that might make him the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

But Drayton doesn’t necessarily need one candidate to emerge as the best individual rusher in the country to get what he’s looking for this spring. The only thing that really matters to him is making sure Ohio State has the best backfield, any way he can get it.

“I’m always going to operate under the notion I need at least three [guys],” Drayton said. “I need at least three, and there’s five of them.

“All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive, they all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style, different strengths and weaknesses and they can all help this football team. ... I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”

Drayton might not be picky about how the production comes. But there’s no flexibility about making sure the Buckeyes get it one way or another.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.

And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.

“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.

“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”

The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.

Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.

“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.

“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”

Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.

“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.

“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”

That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The slogan on the banner hanging outside Mickey Marotti’s office was no longer delivering exactly the right message, so the Ohio State strength coach decided to update it himself.

The last word left some room for ambiguity, so Marotti pulled out some athletic tape to cover it up, got out a marker and made his expectations much more clear for a team coming off consecutive losses to end last season.

The sign that greeted the Buckeyes used to demand that “the BEST players have to be the BEST workers,” but that bar was too low for Marotti and necessitated some editing and minor redecorating during offseason conditioning ahead of Tuesday’s first practice of spring.

“Anybody can be a worker,” Marotti said. “Anybody can punch a clock and get a paycheck. I want grinders.”

The Buckeyes can now find that word scribbled in all caps on the white tape just above the door to Marotti’s office. And that hard-working mentality has clearly emerged early in the year as a driving force for a team that came up short of a couple of its most important goals after its 24-game winning streak came to an end, giving way to a two-game losing streak.

Ohio State still had plenty to feel good about last season after winning its division again, knocking off rival Michigan to cap another perfect regular season and piling up some individual honors along the way. But the loss in the conference title game that kept the Buckeyes from claiming the top prize in the Big Ten and likely from playing for the national championship, and the defeat in the Discover Orange Bowl that followed it, still sting in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

And part of the process in erasing that pain and reaching a higher level in 2014 started with tweaking their vocabulary along with their mindsets.

“Last year, I don’t want to say the word entitled,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “ … Last year it was kind of, well, you were 12-0, you’re preseason this, you’re this, and I haven’t had many people ask about our preseason [ranking]. Right now we’re just trying to find out who’s going to play for us in some spots.

“I don’t want to diminish what happened because we came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter and lost a couple [leads] in those last two games, and that happens. If I felt like there was a lack of fight, then we’d blow the whole thing up. There was certainly not lack of fight.”

There were, perhaps, a few critical pieces missing in terms of personnel and maybe a defensive philosophy that didn’t quite match up with what Meyer ideally wants from his program. Those were obviously at the top of his list when he reported for practice on the indoor field Tuesday.

Ohio State still has some questions to answer at linebacker, but it attacked that weakness on the recruiting trail by signing four guys in the most recent class and appears like it might have a somewhat unexpected solution to replace Ryan Shazier on the weakside with Darron Lee emerging with the first-team unit to start camp.

The process of installing a more aggressive secondary under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has only just begun, but his approach appears to be more in line with what Meyer is expecting even in the early stages.

But again establishing Meyer’s standard for work ethic and reinforcing his emphasis on “4-to-6 seconds of relentless effort” on every play was just as important in shaping his team to compete for a title, and Marotti did his part to help cut down on any wiggle room.

“We just have to improve, we’ve got to finish and I like where we’re at as a team,” Meyer said. “I want an angry, blue-collar team, and I’m hoping that’s what we have.”

The key for the Buckeyes is apparently making sure those blue-collar workers are showing up to do more than punch a clock.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whether Braxton Miller was healthy enough to throw a football or not, the first few entries on the spring checklist didn’t require him to do it.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOhio State QB Braxton Miller will work on the mental side of football this spring.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off the priorities a few days before Miller underwent minor surgery on his throwing shoulder last month. And while there might still be mechanical improvements to be made with his star quarterback, they were almost an afterthought as the two set the course for his last season with the program.

Herman stressed even more dedication to film study. He wanted Miller to know opposing defenses inside and out and be ready to diagram them on the whiteboard whenever he might be prompted to do so. The Buckeyes expect the spread offense to be second nature to him heading into his third season operating the system. Miller tacked one more thing on himself, making it clear that he anticipated becoming a better leader than he has been.

Nothing on this list requires Miller to actually toss a football. So it shouldn’t really matter that he’s expected to be limited physically when camp opens for Ohio State on Tuesday.

“I think probably as improved as he got in the mental side of playing quarterback [in 2013], he still can get a whole lot better,” Herman said. “He can probably make that same leap this year and still have work to do.

“Just the constant studying of the game, studying of defenses and the studying of our plays now that we’ve kind of done the same thing for two years in a row. ... I think he’s getting to that point where all that stuff is slowing down, and he needs to stay on that path.”

Miller has largely made the journey look pretty easy over the past couple pf seasons, steadily improving his numbers, piling up victories and collecting enough individual trophies to fill several mantles in his parents’ house. But for all of his personal success and the 24-game winning streak the Buckeyes put together following the arrival of coach Urban Meyer, there have also been a handful of moments that Herman can point to as evidence that Miller isn’t a finished product yet.

He doesn’t have to go back too far to find tapes to drive the point home. There were a pair of uneven outings in Ohio State’s losses in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, performances where Miller alternated between his trademark brilliance and moments of indecision or uncertainty that proved costly.

The key for Herman, though, is that those losses weren't because Miller didn’t possess the fundamentals to take his game to a higher level as a passer. The Buckeyes emphasized fine-tuning Miller’s mechanics during spring practice a year ago, but even if he was completely healthy now, the focus has shifted to making sure he’s comfortable enough mentally to use them.

“When you know what you’re doing, know what you’re seeing and what everybody else around you is doing, it’s easy to play with great fundamentals because you’re relaxed,” Herman said. “If you’ve ever stood back there and tried to make a decision in 1.9 seconds and see the things that he has to see and process that kind of information that fast, there’s a tremendous learning curve to that.

“I think fundamentally, the more we keep attacking that [mental] side of it, the more consistent he’ll be -- because he knows how to do that.”

Miller doesn’t need to prove anything from a physical aspect this spring, and his surgery will limit the chances to do it anyway. But that might just give him more time to spend on items Herman already had at the top of the camp checklist.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

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.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"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.

Big Ten makes progress in diversity

February, 24, 2014
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The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.

But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithPenn State's decision to hire James Franklin as its first African-American head football coach can't be underestimated.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.

Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.

"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."

There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.

Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.

"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.

"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."

Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.

“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Ting Shen/Triple Play New MediaBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the hiring process should be fair and a commitment to opportunity for all coaches.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.

"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."

The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.

Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.

"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."

That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.

"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s no escaping the history for Braxton Miller.

It was there sitting on a table just off the court at Value City Arena on Wednesday night, another Tribune Silver Football with his name on it to honor the Big Ten’s best player.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Braxton Miller holds the Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's most valuable player.
It was echoed over the speakers during a presentation at midcourt as the Ohio State quarterback was identified as only the fourth two-time winner of the prestigious award, just before he and everybody else were reminded he could become the first to claim it three times.

Even when he’s not showing up to collect some hardware, Miller only has to walk through the hallways of the practice facility on campus to see where he now ranks among the all-time greats to have suited up for the Buckeyes.

Miller doesn’t need the reminders, though, and it’s what he has yet to accomplish that at least played some part in his decision to return for one more season with the program.

“I walked past a board the other day and my name is right under Troy Smith,” Miller said. “I texted him, ‘Hey man, check this out. I’m right behind you, man.’ He said, ‘That’s a good look. Keep it up.’

“I’ve just got to keep putting in work. … I mean, he’s got the big thing. He went to the [national championship game]. He’s got the Heisman. I’m working towards that, too.”

Those two entries are about the only items missing from Miller’s résumé, and while trophies might not have been the top priority on his list of pros and cons, they are clearly motivating him now that his mind has been made up about his future.

Miller stressed the importance of getting a degree and referenced how much he still has to learn about the mental side of the game as key factors for him. While he declined to specify what grade he received as part of his feedback from the draft advisory board, he called it “one of the best evaluations you can get.”

After struggling down the stretch as a passer as the Buckeyes fell out of national-title contention with a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and then dropped the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, his professional stock certainly seemed to take a hit. But Miller indicated that he was leaning toward returning all along, and there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of benefits in doing so.

“There wasn’t a big thought about [leaving],” Miller said. “I always knew I was eventually going to make that decision and I was going to come back. … I just sat down with the coaches, observed everything, made sure that I was making the right decision. I went over everything, and it wasn’t too hard of a decision.

“Coming back, you want to accomplish things that you didn’t accomplish in your first three years and I feel like I left some little things out on the field and there’s a lot of achievements I can still go do. I can achieve all of my goals, there’s a lot of things that I think about and that’s why I wanted to come back. I sat down with my coach and my dad and we made the right decision.”

Aside from the chance to rewrite the record books individually, Miller now has a chance to fine-tune his mechanics, improve his grasp of concepts on both sides of the ball and potentially build himself into a high-round draft pick.

For the Buckeyes, the rewards are every bit as obvious. They’ve got a two-time conference player of the year, a multipurpose athlete who has twice finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting and a senior with three years of starting experience returning to lead their high-octane offense as they reload for another shot at a Big Ten title -- or more.

And everybody involved is aware of the kind of legacy they can create together.

“I trusted in the people, including myself and coach [Urban] Meyer and his parents, people that were advising him and the outlets where he was getting his information from, they all kind of pointed in the same direction,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “That was to make sure that he does come back and continue improving on the trajectory that he’s been improving on.

“He’s got a chance, obviously, when he leaves here to set dang near every school record imaginable, every Big Ten record imaginable and win a championship or two. And then, hopefully, he’ll be a first-round draft pick.”

Those potential accomplishments are no secret to Miller, and he’s definitely not shying away from them. If anything, after clutching another Silver Football, the way he’s embracing history appears to be a key part of the reason he’s still sticking around.
Four years ago, the Big Ten clarified its November night games policy, saying that while a contractual provision exists between the league and its TV partners about prime-time games after Nov. 1, the games can take place if all parties are on board and planning begins early.

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.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf the matchups are right, Ohio State AD Gene Smith is open to November night games in the Big Ten.
But when the Big Ten prime-time schedule came out for the 2013 season, it included no night games after Nov. 1.

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:

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska

Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State

Nov. 8

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.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/The Ann Arbor NewsMichigan likes for its night games to be major events, which could rule the Wolverines out for an early-November game under the lights in 2014.
The good news: Several of the schools hosting games that day are among the most open in the league to hosting night games. Penn State and Nebraska welcome such contests -- in part because of their pre-Big Ten history -- and Ohio State, which is installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 season, has become increasingly interested. Rutgers comes from a league where you played whenever TV asked you to, and a night game against a good opponent like Wisconsin would bring some nice exposure for one of the new Big Ten additions.

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."

Top five Big Ten student sections

February, 17, 2014
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We're taking a look at attendance issues, and one concern many schools have is how to make sure students show up on a consistent basis.

That got us thinking about which Big Ten schools have the best student sections for football. Here's our top five:

[+] EnlargePenn State Nittany Lions fans
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsFrom waiting in "Paternoville" to white outs to singing to, well, just shaking their pom-poms, it's always wild at Penn State.
Penn State: There's simply no better student section in the country than the one at Beaver Stadium. Penn State students love their Nittany Lions, and they arrive on game days ready to cheer loud, sing songs and wear the right colors. The S-Zone forms a giant blue S on a white background that looks incredible on TV and in person. Students camp out for tickets in the old "Paternoville" (now "Nittanyville"), and the school sold more than 21,000 student season tickets last season.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes have such a wide swath of supporters in Ohio that they can sometimes feel like a pro team, but the large and dedicated student section at the Horseshoe keeps that from being the case. Occupying much of the south end zone, the Block-O often leads the stadium in cheers. Urban Meyer started a new tradition where he and strength coach Mickey Marotti lead the students through a series of "quick cals" before the game. And win or lose, the team sings "Carmen Ohio" in front of the band and student section after games.

Wisconsin: Let's start with the elephant in the room: Badgers students have become notorious for showing up late on game days, especially early afternoon kickoffs. So we have to dock them a few points for that. But once they finally do get there in full, there are few better parties to attend. From nontraditional waves to singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" to "Jump Around," the Wisconsin students know how to have a good time at home games, even if their cheers can sometimes turn a little too profane for those with more delicate sensibilities.

Nebraska: The Huskers love to brag about their NCAA-record sellout streak of 333 games, and rightly so. The dirty little secret, though, is that there are often empty seats at the top of the student section, something that embarrasses proud Cornhuskers fans. Still, the Boneyard -- inspired by the Blackshirts nickname -- is pretty cool, and you might think you've wandered into an Oakland Raiders game based on some of the students' more creative attire. And Nebraska fans in general remain some of the classiest in sports, as evidenced again during last season's UCLA game, when students helped lead a tribute to a Bruins player who had recently passed away.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes took away a section of student seats last year because of decreased demand. So there's that. But the Hawks Nest is usually a well-organized, loyal group that adds to the underrated game-day experience at Kinnick Stadium.
The Big Ten's combination of big stadiums, big fan bases and big tradition has historically made football attendance a rather small issue.

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.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State averaged 104,933 fans at its seven home games in 2013, which ranked No. 2 in that nation behind Michigan.
The Big Ten in 2013 set records for total attendance (6,127,526) and attendance for league games (3,414,448), and ranked second behind the SEC in average attendance per game (70,431), a slight increase from 2012.

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 attendance

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."

In-Game Entertainment

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.
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.

"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."

Big Ten spring practice dates

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
9:00
AM ET
Now that signing day is in the rear-view mirror, the next major thing to look forward to is spring practice.

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:

Illinois

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Indiana

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: TBA

Iowa

Spring practice starts: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

Maryland

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 11

Michigan

Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5

Michigan State

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Minnesota

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Nebraska

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 12

Northwestern

Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

Ohio State

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Penn State

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12

Purdue

Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 12

Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Wisconsin

Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 12

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