NCF Nation: Penn State Nittany Lions

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Who has the travel plug adapter for James Franklin's goatee clippers? And, oh yeah, how's all that Gatorade getting over to Ireland if customs won't let it on the plane?

Those are both questions that Penn State Nittany Lions' support staff has had to ask itself the past few months in preparation of the season opener against UCF in Dublin, Ireland. (Hell hath no fury like an ungroomed Franklin …) But you can't be blamed if you've gone this past week without wondering about those concerns. After all, besides Penn State's support staff, who really wants to worry about all that anyway?

"The one good thing about the trip," offensive coordinator John Donovan said earlier this week, "is that I have nothing to do with it logistically."

The support staff has attempted to address every little travel loophole and overseas scenario. Even without volcanoes in the picture, it truly is a crazy process. So we checked in with Michael Hazel, director of football operations, and equipment manager Jay Takach for an inside look on some of the odder stuff they're dealing with, along with some of the more interesting notes and numbers:
  • Dude, where's my paper? During most away games, Penn State could just use the printer, fax machine and color copier on site. But … there's no color copier near the team hotel. So, no problem, the Nittany Lions will just lug their own more than 3,000 miles away. And then it can just use the hotel's paper, right? Nope, that'd be way too easy. The staff discovered that paper sizes over there aren't necessarily uniform to the U.S. -- so they also have to take two boxes of paper for coach notes and such. Different paper; who knew?
  • Heavy lifting. Penn State is taking 20,000 pounds worth of equipment and supplies to Ireland. There are more than 9,000 items, more than 500 lines' worth of inventory on Excel, and it all barely fits into a 53-foot tractor trailer. Also, did I mention Penn State is required to list every single item it packs? The Nittany Lions are bringing some small rolls of athletic tape and a couple pencils -- and they have to list and account for them all, or the items won't make the flight as cargo.
  • A well-groomed goatee is a happy goatee. OK, OK – so the goatee isn't at the top of the "travel priorities" list. Probably. But one thing that is: making sure everyone (especially the head coach) has a power adapter and surge protector for their electronics … such as goatee trimmers. Each player and coach room will be situated with one. Lest you think the goatee is mentioned purely in jest, it was suggested to Franklin last month he let his hair/goatee grow out for a few days. Immediately afterward, it looked as if he just bit into a lemon. Said Hazel: "I'm not responsible for shaving his head, but I want to make sure he's got the power he needs."
  • You can't take what on the plane? Lithium batteries for cameras and training devices, Gatorade and air horns. For varying reasons, they're just not cleared for travel to Ireland. Outside of creating another headache – and probably increasing the amount of Advil listed on the travel carnet – these items luckily weren't too difficult to procure overseas. Penn State has a liaison in Dublin who purchased air horns along with some other items, and Gatorade was already shipped over to the Emerald Isle. "We got a guy," Takach said.
  • Interesting solutions to interesting problems. Something is bound to fall through the cracks and, on Wednesday, Takach said an issue or two still remained. For one, the team has been practicing in 75-80 degree weather recently -- but it could be around 50 degrees in Ireland. So the Lions might need some long-sleeve shirts, but that clothing wasn't included on the travel carnet. If it's not on the list, it's not allowed on the plane. Tackach's workaround? "I've got to pack some of that as personal," he said. "I'm going to have like three or four bags where I'm like, 'Oh, no, this is all my clothing.'"

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.

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
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin has experienced his share of headaches with all the logistics of holding a season opener 3,000 miles away in Ireland. But there's one new wrinkle he probably hadn't counted on.

The potential eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Seriously.

The staff probably just wanted to watch some film on UCF quarterback Pete DiNovo or wideout Rannell Hall. Now, it's keeping an eye on Bardarbunga, the name of the volcano that kind of looks like it belongs to a defensive tackle. A real eruption could lead to some potential travel issues.

"We're aware of that, and we're monitoring that situation," said Michael Hazel, Penn State's director of football operations. "That's kind of out of our area of expertise."

Sadly, this isn't the synopsis to a terrible B-movie. Iceland evacuated the largely uninhabited area around the volcano, and its meteorological office raised its threat level to orange --which is the second-highest alert.

But don't go trading in those Croke Park tickets just yet. It's still too early to say whether the volcano will really erupt. And, even then, there's no telling whether the ash will create enough of a hazard to impact flights like an eruption did in 2010.

It could wind up as absolutely nothing. But the fact we even have to discuss a volcano -- and that Penn State is monitoring it -- sure is surreal. Normally, we just have to stick to following wind, rain and snow. Maybe we should start adding volcanoes and earthquakes to our Big Ten game-day weather reports?
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.

2013 overall record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, QB; Bill Belton, RB; Zach Zwinak, RB; Donovan Smith, OT; Jesse James, TE; Deion Barnes, DE; C.J. Olaniyan, DE; Mike Hull, LB; Adrian Amos, S; Jordan Lucas, CB

Key losses: Allen Robinson, WR; John Urschel, G; Ty Howle, C; Adam Gress, OT; DaQuan Jones, DT; Glenn Carson, LB; Malcolm Willis, S

Instant impact newcomer: The easy pick is at wide receiver, where Penn State needs help following the departure of Allen Robinson. The team signed several talented receivers in February, and Chris Godwin could be the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Godwin has the physical tools to contribute right away for PSU's offense. Also keep an eye on receivers De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarQB Christian Hackenberg became the first sophomore ever to be named a captain at Penn State.
Offense: QB: Christian Hackenberg, Soph., 6-4, 234; RB: Bill Belton, Sr., 5-10, 204; WR: Geno Lewis, Soph., 6-1, 199; WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Fr., 6-1, 203; TE: Jesse James, Jr., 6-7, 254; TE: Kyle Carter, Jr., 6-3, 241; OT: Donovan Smith, Sr., 6-5, 335; OT: Andrew Nelson, Fr., 6-5, 305; G: Derek Dowrey, Soph., 6-3, 323; G: Brian Gaia, Soph., 6-3, 291; C: Angelo Mangiro, Jr., 6-3, 309

Defense: DE: Deion Barnes, Jr., 6-4, 255; DE: C.J. Olaniyan, Sr., 6-3, 252; DT: Austin Johnson, Soph., 6-4, 313; DT: Anthony Zettel, Jr., 6-4, 274; LB: Brandon Bell, Soph., 6-1, 222; LB: Mike Hull, Sr., 6-0, 232; LB: Nyeem Wartman, Soph., 6-1, 236; CB: Jordan Lucas, Jr., 6-0, 198; CB: Trevor Williams, Jr., 6-1, 188; S: Adrian Amos, Sr., 6-0, 209; S: Ryan Keiser, Sr., 6-1, 208

Specialists: K: Sam Ficken, Sr., 6-2, 186; P: Chris Gulla, Fr., 6-0, 193

Biggest question mark: Can assistant coach Herb Hand work his magic with the offensive line? The Lions likely will start two converted defensive linemen, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, at the guard spots and a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith will anchor the group and should contend for All-Big Ten honors, but Penn State is dangerously thin up front and can't afford to put Hackenberg in harm's way.

Most important game: Aug. 30 against UCF in Dublin (not the one in Ohio). There has been a lot of positive energy since James Franklin arrived in January, but the team remains somewhat of a mystery. Penn State could be a pleasant surprise or regress after the latest transition. It's important to start off well and build confidence in a setting where it matters. UCF isn't an easy draw as the Knights come off a Fiesta Bowl championship and bring back nine starters on defense. They were picked second in the American in the preseason media poll. This game really sets the tone for PSU.

Upset special: Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Unless the NCAA changes course on Penn State's ban, this will serve as the Lions' bowl game as they wrap up the season. Penn State has recorded very impressive wins against Wisconsin to finish each of the past two seasons, and Michigan State can expect the Lions' best shot at Beaver Stadium. A lot depends on PSU's health entering the game, but the Lions have a chance here.

Key stat: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Florida State's Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, were the only FBS freshman to record 14 passes of 40 yards or longer in 2013.

What they're wearing: A smiling Franklin said last month on ESPN, "I've always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we're going to do something similar to that. We're not going to do anything gradual. We're just going to go right after it." A complete makeover seems unlikely at Penn State, which cherishes its traditional blue-and-white look but put players' names on jerseys in each of the past two seasons.

Stay tuned.

Team's top Twitter follows: No Big Ten coaching staff embraces social media quite like Franklin (@coachjfranklin) and his assistants. Be sure to follow offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff (@CoachHuff), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (@SpenceChaos) and others. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg tweets (@chackenberg1), and other good follows include cornerback Jordan Lucas (@_JLucas9), offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65), defensive end Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) and running back Akeel Lynch (@ALynch_22). The official team handle (@PennStateFball) tweets some good stuff, and the recruiting staff has an account (@PSURecruits).

They said it: " Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome. So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly." -- coach James Franklin

Stats & Info projections: 6.85 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. There are so many unknowns here, such as the team's health/depth and whether the postseason ban will be lifted. A few injuries to the wrong players, and Penn State could be staring at a losing season. But I like the starting 22 and think the defense will be improved under Bob Shoop's direction. The Lions don't play the top teams in the West division, and they get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith already knows what this article is going to say.

Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.

Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDonovan Smith is the only returning starter on the Penn State offensive line, and he's motivated by that.
“A lot of people hear it, but we use it as motivation,” Smith said, adding some of his teammates keep the negative articles taped to their lockers or saved to their phones. “They read them daily or at night, or stuff like that. We’re just going to use it as motivation and push on from there.”

That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.

Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.

“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.

“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”

Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.

Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?

“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”

The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.

But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The season hasn’t yet started for Penn State, but Christian Hackenberg is already making program history.

The second-year quarterback was announced as a team captain Wednesday morning, making him the first sophomore to earn the honor in the team’s 128-year history. Injured senior guard Miles Dieffenbach joins him as the other offensive captain.

“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said during Big Ten media days. “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.”

The captaincy isn’t a huge surprise since Hackenberg is widely regarded as the team’s top player. It’s more surprising he’s the first sophomore ever in program history to achieve the feat.

Then again, he became just the third quarterback to ever start a season opener as a true freshman, so the opportunity hasn’t often been there in the past. Eugene “Shorty” Miller became the first to start in 1910 and Rob Bolden the second exactly a century later.

Hackenberg is actually only the second-youngest player to earn the honor, though. Tailback Johnny Chuckran became the first and only freshman team captain in 1944, during World War II. According to Penn State historian Lou Prato, Chuckran was named captain in Week 4 after all the Marines -- which included six starters -- left.

Penn State also named the defensive co-captains as linebacker Mike Hull and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan. Three players – kicker Sam Ficken and safeties Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser – were the special teams co-captains.
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If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.

Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.

"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTo change the national perception that it is a weak conference, the Big Ten needs more big victories like Michigan State's against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
To be sure, the league has brought most of this misery upon itself. The Big Ten is 11-21 in bowl games in the past four seasons and has posted a winning postseason record once (in 2010) since 2002. The league has lost 25 of its past 33 games against ranked, power conference competition and Notre Dame. The Big Ten hasn’t played for a national championship since the 2007 season, when Ohio State’s second straight double-digit loss to an SEC team did much to create the SEC-rules, Big-Ten-drools paradigm we’ve been living in ever since.

Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.

Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.

"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."

The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.

"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."

The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.

"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."

Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.

"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."

There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.

"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."

The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.

"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State tight end Adam Breneman, ESPN’s top-rated TE-Y of the 2013 class, is “out indefinitely” with an undisclosed injury, according to a news release from the program.

Head coach James Franklin has a policy not to disclose injuries and has refused to comment or confirm past ones. So Franklin’s announcement Monday afternoon definitely came as a surprise and might speak to its severity.

The injury isn’t the first to Breneman, who was ranked as the 67th best overall player in the 2013 class. He missed his entire senior season of high school with a torn ACL but still enrolled in January 2013 and dismissed any talk of redshirting. He recovered quickly enough to play in 11 games last season and finished with 15 catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

Depth is a concern for Penn State, but tight end is just about the only position where that concern doesn’t apply. Jesse James, a junior, returns as the top tight end and the Lions’ leading receiver. Kyle Carter, who caught 18 passes last season, also returns and was a candidate for Big Ten tight end of the year two seasons ago.

Penn State also has Brent Wilkerson, who missed last season with an injury, and true freshman Mike Gesicki on the roster at tight end.

Breneman would’ve added another wrinkle into the passing attack and likely would’ve seen an increased role while splitting time with Carter. The injury hardly means it’s time for this offense to panic, but the question now centers on where Breneman will fit in with this team once he recovers.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.
Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg isn't fazed by the attention coming his way.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan pivoted toward his right last month and watched as reporters crowded around the Nittany Lions’ star quarterback. It was a scene Olaniyan had grown pretty used to over the past year.

He understood it, of course. Christian Hackenberg was the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. A potential future No. 1 overall draft pick. A former five-star prospect. But, with his hands on his hips, Olaniyan paused for a moment, smiled and then – half-jokingly – made a statement that underscored the importance of Penn State's sophomore signal-caller.

“He’s got the hopes and dreams of everybody in his hands,” Olaniyan said.

Olaniyan wasn’t stone-faced or wholly serious during his assessment. But the ironic thing is he wasn't wrong. Penn State’s ceiling is only as high as Hackenberg’s ability. And Happy Valley is only happy so long as Hackenberg is launching touchdown passes.

The 19-year-old has taken a lot upon his shoulders in a short period of time. He was hailed as the program’s savior when he still roamed the halls of his military academy, when he kicked up dirt on the baseball diamond and waded into local streams for fly fishing. Now, fans’ hopes are pinned and piled on his young shoulders. ESPN ranked him as the 46th-best college player in the country; another site ranked him even higher.

Hackenberg isn’t deaf to the fan murmurs regarding his importance. But, on Monday, he reclined on a bench, relaxed and looked more like a man catching a tan than one whose every move will be judged and analyzed. Put simply, he knows the stakes – but, he insisted, feels no pressure.

“I mean, I really don’t feel it at all,” he said with a shrug. “I think the people that I look to the most are my teammates, my coaching staff and my family. So as long as I’m not letting those people down and they have confidence in me, then I have confidence in what we can do and what I can do.

“Again, I’m just another piece to a bigger puzzle. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”

There’s a different look about Hackenberg this preseason. He enrolled last summer and spent about four weeks with Bill O’Brien before making his first career start in the opener. He didn’t look lost, but he didn’t look wholly comfortable either. As a rookie, he was forced to listen instead of lead. Now that he knows the offense, that the game has slowed and his on-field I.Q. has increased, he’s prepared for the latter.

“The kid is unbelievable,” strength coach Dwight Galt said. “The kid’s been here 13 months – not only 13 months – and the way he acts, the way he carries himself, the way everybody respects him, you’d think he’s a fourth-year guy.”

Teammates notice that confidence and the way he’s able to deflect that pressure. Instead of them directing him, he’s the one offering up tips and advice. Cornerback Jordan Lucas watches the way Hackenberg “walks, the way he talks, the way he calls plays” and how that swagger has become routine. It’s what Penn State expects now.

That’s why Lucas said nothing Hackenberg does is unbelievable anymore. Nothing is “crazy.” It’s just one of those things.

“There’s just certain times you play perfect coverage and he just fits the ball in there just because he can,” Lucas said. “And a lot of quarterbacks can’t do what he does. It’s not crazy; he just wows me. I just can’t wait to see what he does this season.”

Most Penn State fans can’t wait either, since neither they nor the media have really been able to gauge Hackenberg's progress. James Franklin ushered reporters out of practice Monday before Hackenberg attempted a pass over 10 yards. And he didn’t air it out during the spring game either. So, until the opener, it’s only the players and coaches who can really speak to how far he’s come.

Luckily, they're not shy about praising the sophomore.

“From the time he got here until now, he’s a completely different quarterback,” tight end Jesse James said. “He’s always had a great arm, and he just keeps learning more and more about how defenses change. He just keeps getting better; it’s like his arm gets stronger every day.”

Added tight end Kyle Carter: “He’s a lot more confident. Last year in training camp, he was the new guy and all that. Now you can tell he’s a lot more confident in his game and where he stands with the team.”

Not that Hackenberg really pays mind to the compliments, or all the attention. He’s one of the most recognizable faces around campus – even after tailback and unofficial team barber Bill Belton cut his shaggy blond locks – but he’s trying to take it all in stride. There was the time, during the spring game autograph session, when an elderly woman tried to cross the ropes and plant her lips on the teenager. (PSU officials intervened just in time.) And then there are the countless times when, ball cap or not, students will stop him for a few words or a pat on the back.

But beneath his white visor Monday, Hackenberg smiled and said he felt no pressure. Maybe it was a foreign concept to him since his commitment in spite of 2012 sanctions led to an explosion of media coverage. Maybe, just like the passing ability Lucas alluded to, the “crazy” has simply become routine.

“But does anything make Christian Hackenberg nervous?” one reporter asked.

“I don’t like public speaking,” he said. “I don’t like getting up and talking in front of classes, you know? It’s weird. Like my CAS 100 [Effective Speech] class, getting up and talking. I don’t really like that.”

“But you’re fine with this, talking to the media, and playing in front of 107,000 people?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Hackenberg said, nodding. “I can’t diagnose that for you. It’s just one of those things.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin shied away from discussing strategy and game-planning Monday afternoon, but he still managed to draw laughs for his reasoning.

“One of the things I’ve always struggled with,” Franklin said, “is how do I answer your questions and give you the information that you need with also not talking directly to [Central Florida coach] George O’Leary? Because he’s watching right now.”

Franklin then stopped, turned his head toward the cameras and waved: “Hi, George!”

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNew coach James Franklin believes Penn State will be a faster team this season.
Penn State’s first-year head coach was as animated as ever during the first day of fall practice. He reiterated a lot of key points from his time at Chicago's Big Ten media days, but there were still several new nuggets of information.

Here are some of those newsworthy highlights:

Focus not yet on season opener: Franklin spoke to the team Sunday night and told them that would be the last time they discuss Central Florida for at least two weeks. For now, it’s all Penn State.

“Our focus right now is on Penn State and becoming the best Penn State we can possibly be,” he said.

Faster team: Franklin didn’t feel comfortable talking about specific true freshmen since he hasn’t yet really had a chance to see them practice. But he did compliment the overall team speed -- and how the freshmen have really added to that.

“We’ve had five guys this spring on our team that ran a sub-4.5,” he said. “I think we got more than that right now with the guys that have developed on our team but, with just the incoming freshman class, we ended up having 11 guys that ran a sub-4.5. So that’s exciting.”

Early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins (receiver) ran the fastest 40-yard dash -- somewhere in the 4.4s -- in the spring. But Franklin believed that true freshman cornerback Grant Haley surpassed him this summer.

Tight end U? Allen Robinson caught 97 balls last season, and he’s on the Jacksonville Jaguars now. So, obviously, that lost production has to come from somewhere -- and Franklin believes a lot of that will come from the tight ends.

He said the freshman receivers are still a bit of a wild card because they are still adjusting to the college game. But those tight ends? It’s a different story.

"That’s where we have the most veteran players. That’s where we have the most experience and depth," he said. "I’m excited about those young [receivers], but that’s what it is right now. It’s excitement -- based on what they did in high school ..."

Three-headed running attack: Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak saw plenty of carries the past two seasons, but Franklin said it wouldn’t just be those two carrying the ball this season.

Expect some time from speedster Akeel Lynch, too.

“If you look across the country, you really need three running backs for a whole season to keep those guys healthy and fresh, and rotate them so you have a chance to dictate the terms of the game and force your will on your opponent in the fourth quarter,” Franklin said. “And to also do those things late in the season.”

Priorities: The Xs and the Os of football are obviously important -- but Franklin believes they might not be as important as one other key element, at least early in camp. He said camp will start out aggressive, and then he’ll play practice by ear.

"I think this staff moreso than most staffs I’ve been on, we spend a lot of time focused on chemistry and morale," he said. "I think chemistry and morale are as important, if not more important, than the Xs and the Os and the toughness. But those things are important as well."
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.

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 10-6

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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, then climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday before we reached No. 11 Wednesday. Next up is Nos. 6 through 10.

10. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State Spartans: It took the Spartans a few weeks last season to settle on a starter, but there are certainly no doubts anymore. All Cook did was toss 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading MSU to a conference title and a Rose Bowl victory. The question mark on the Spartans was always the offense, but Cook helped replace that with an exclamation mark and has gained a reputation as one of the Big Ten’s best as a result.

9. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State Buckeyes: Say hello to a big reason the Buckeyes boasted one of the top 10 run defenses in the country last season. The 288-pound lineman is the anchor and leader of this line, and he should be in for another solid season. He had 11.5 stops in the backfield last season and had his hand in five fumbles (three forced, two recovered). His burst should give opposing interior linemen a lot of problems in 2014.

8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s only a sophomore, but he’s already in the preseason conversation as the B1G’s defensive player of the year. He started 10 games last season, played like at a veteran at points and improved as the season wore on. Bosa ended 2013 by recording a tackle for loss in his last six games. It’s scary to think where he might be in another two years.

7. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State Nittany Lions: NFL Draft: Will Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016? That was a headline from The Sporting News back in February and for good reason -- Hackenberg appears to be the Nittany Lions’ best pocket passer since Kerry Collins, who was taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. He can make all the throws, upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin last season and should be even better this season. The only question is whether his patchwork offensive line and inexperienced receivers will be able to keep up.

6. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: He’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top defenses in the country. He makes plays at key moments -- his three defensive TDs last season tied a school record that was set 67 years ago -- and his efforts were rewarded by being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He’s an All-American talent and one of the best the B1G has to offer.
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No Big Ten coaching staff has a larger social media presence than Penn State's, particularly on Twitter. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) requires his assistants to have Twitter accounts -- it's not optional.

Some Lions aides, such as offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), wide receivers coach Josh Gattis (@Coach_Gattis) and defensive line coach Sean "Coach Chaos" Spencer (@SpenceChaos), are very active on Twitter, while others dabble in it.

The biggest reason for the push is obvious: recruiting.

"The target market is the 15- to 17-, 18-year-old kid, and that's how guys communicate," Hand told ESPN.com earlier this summer. "They're going to communicate through Twitter, through Facebook, through the direct message avenues on those two sites. So you've got to bring it to them. You can't sit there and say, 'Hey, you come to me.'

"You've got to meet them where they're at."

But reaching recruits isn't the only reason Hand uses Twitter. If you follow him -- he has more than 19,000 followers -- you've probably seen the word "branding" pop up a lot on his timeline.

Hand considers Twitter and other social media outlets as branding tools. Those who use them correctly can build their brands; those who don't can destroy them.

"There’s an opportunity in social media that's very powerful to connect with people," Hand said. "It's important for people to understand that before they get involved with it because you also can shoot yourself in the foot real quick. That's one of the problems with a lot of the young guys on there, players we're recruiting. They don't think before they post stuff. They don't realize that this is your brand.

"You're telling the world who you are."

I thought about this Wednesday morning when Hand tweeted that Penn State was no longer pursuing a prospect because of the prospect's social media presence, which, in Hand's view, revealed who the player really is.



He then followed up with this:

"We owe it to our players to educate them on how to use it responsibly," Hand told me in June. "Social media is a huge part of our society. It’s a global thing. If you're really about educating guys, let's educate people on it and make sure they're not using it to destroy themselves, either, because that can happen in a heartbeat."

Franklin actually found out about the recruiting about-face through Twitter on Wednesday while attending ESPN's "Car Wash" in Bristol, Connecticut. He told ESPN's "Numbers Never Lie" that one questionable tweet won't discourage coaches from recruiting a player, but a pattern of them will.

"It's no different than transcripts, it’s no different than game film," Franklin said. "It's another piece of information."

Hopefully, recruits are listening. Hand, a 46-year-old father of three, might not look like a social-media expert, but he knows his stuff. His social media introduction came in 2001 when he was West Virginia's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. He used to use Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" tool to interact with fans on message boards.

Hand quickly saw where the trend was heading and built his own brand as he moved to Tulsa, Vanderbilt and now Penn State. He has fun with it, as you can see here and here and here, but also has a serious tone when tweeting about his work with Our Kids, an organization that helps children and families affected by child sexual abuse.

"I want to be sincere," he said. "What you see is what you get. It's who I am. I'm not trying to just be a robot on there."

The social media boom with Penn State football seems unusual, as former coach Joe Paterno obviously didn't tweet and former coach Bill O'Brien once referred to "Spacebook" and "Tweeter." But the current coaches are not only encouraging players to use Twitter, but to do so responsibly.

"I know they're going to have some people out there watching us, especially on social media," linebacker Mike Hull said. "So I try to refrain from saying anything too bad."

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