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Thursday, September 13, 2012
Big Ten Thursday mailbag

By Brian Bennett

Is it time to tailgate yet? Well, let's answer some mail until the meats hit the grill.

Nick from GoBlueBABY writes: Unlike most of the Michigan faithful I'm not going to be naive and think Michigan is positioned for a repeat of last year. Obviously there are some big question marks about the strength and depth of the O and D line, but I think people are hitting the panic button a little early for Big Blue. I'm a numbers guy and if you look at Michigan's first two games this year compared to last year it's not that different. They allowed 848 yards and 66 points so far this year compared to 792 yards and 41 points last year. However if you look at the turnover margin they were +5 last year compared to -3 this year so there is a need for the defense to step it up and create turnovers and take some pressure off the offense. At this point last year Michigan was unranked and nobody expected them to beat Ohio, get a BCS bowl bid and win, make it to 11 wins, and finish as a top 10 team. Last year's start wasn't pretty but it turned out pretty darn good so isn't it a little early for everyone to be jumping ship?

Brian Bennett: You make some solid points. Michigan's defense was not nearly as good in the first two weeks last year as it would become. Anyone remember the Notre Dame game last year? It really seemed like things started to click last year in the fourth game against San Diego State. I guess the big difference, besides the competition level this year, is that last season was the first under a new coaching staff. Even with new starters, there was an assumption that the Wolverines would be able to pick up where they left off. It's far too soon to write off Michigan, however. This team should be in the thick of the Big Ten race all year long.

The thing that has concerned me ever since the spring is the lack of depth on the lines and what would happen if there were injuries. The Wolverines already appear to be hit harder by injuries this year than they were last season. A lot of freshmen are playing, and it's tough to win the Big Ten with so much youth in key spots.


Adam from Ann Arbor writes: I hate to remind people of last weekend, but I have a question about the B1G playing on the West Coast. I saw an article on NPR today about NFL teams from the East playing on the West coast at night -  - turns out over the past 25 years West Coast teams that play east coast teams at night win 70% of the time due, in part, to our natural body clocks. I know this is starting to sound like another excuse, and I'm not excusing the B1G's horrific play, but I was curious if anyone has bothered to conduct a similar study in college sports. College kids keep strange schedules and the effect might be better or worse on them. If there is a similar effect, shouldn't the B1G at least try to schedule day (3:30) games when they go out West (not that it would have helped Wisconsin)?

Brian Bennett: Anyone who has traveled across several time zones can tell you that it takes a while for your body to adjust. It would be naive to think the time change plays no role. But Big Ten teams played at several different times last week out West -- Wisconsin played at 3 p.m. Central time, Nebraska at 6:30 and Illinois at 9:30. And of course all three lost, with the Illini looking the most listless. College students should have more energy than pro players in their 30s, and charter flights make the trips more manageable. I'm not sure how much of an excuse the Big Ten can make for that showing last week. Oh, and Cal will be at a potentially bigger disadvantage this week at Ohio State, playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time.


Nathan from Denver writes: I can understand the reactions to the B1G losses this weekend. And maybe this is the weakest the conference has been in several years. My concern is for the Spartans, who no one seems to be taking very seriously. Will the bad view of the B1G, in general, effect MSUs chances of playing the title game if they end the year undeafeated? I truly believe if Maxwell can line things up with the unproven WRs on this team, they will be nearly impossible to beat.

Brian Bennett: While it's too early to be thinking about undefeated seasons, that's an interesting question to ponder. A 13-0 Michigan State team might well suffer from the Big Ten reputation if there are more than two undefeated, major conference contenders out there. If it's a choice between, say, Michigan State, a 13-0 Alabama and a 13-0 USC, then the Spartans wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt (and they started way behind both in the polls). If there is only one undefeated team, a 13-0 Michigan State team would likely make the title game, though you can already imagine the howling and crying if there's a 12-1 SEC champion out there. The Spartans need to root for Boise State and Notre Dame to have strong seasons to bolster their reputation.


Arun from San Francisco writes: Greetings from the West Coast, Brian! Glad college football is back because the fans out here... well nevermind, everyone's too busy watching the 49ers and Giants. Give me some reprieve!There is always vitriol between East Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Columbus about player misconduct off the field. Mark Dantonio understandably got a lot of bad press with Glenn Winston, Rather Hall, and Dion Sims, and it seems Brady Hoke is joining the club with his (seemingly) light punishment of Frank Clark.My question is this: Can we end the "your school goes easier on players than my school!" argument? Can we all agree that young men make mistakes and those who most closely interact with the players (coaches, staff) know more about mentoring student-athletes than the rest of us? Fans need to stop whining about Chris Rucker or Fitz Toussaint or DeVier Posey playing and let the coaches do what's best for their players.

Brian Bennett: It's always funny to me how fans are quick to call another team's players "thugs" or say their program has no discipline when one of these issues arises. And then when something similar happens at their own school, they defend their player to the hilt and offer reasons why the situation is more complicated than it appears. Fact is that no program is immune to off-the-field problems, and every situation has more factors behind it than we probably realize. Coaches have to make tough decisions, and they're not always right. We still have to hold those coaches and programs accountable for those decisions, but to pretend those things don't happen everywhere is naive.


Chuck D from Mt. Morris, Mich., writes: A lot of people are praising the ACC's "addition" of Notre Dame, and I know it should help them with TV contracts, but doesn't this show that they are still a conference way behind the B1G, Pac12, Big 12, and SEC? I can't see why any league would allow them to compete in all sports, and not as a football member.

Brian Bennett: In a sense, you are right, Chuck. We all know that ACC football is pretty lousy (sorry, Heather Dinich). That's still a basketball league, and the five annual games against ACC teams will be big for that conference. But the Big Ten would never have gone for that sort of one-foot-in arrangement, and it's highly unlikely that the Pac-12 or SEC would have, either. The Big 12, I'm not so sure.


Matt T. from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: I would be shocked to yet again have you answer one of my questions, seeing how half I send in are legit, and have are just plain rude. Anyways, I like to think in hypotheticals. SO Hypothetically speaking, former Penn State receiver Shawney Kersey can transfer wherever he wants. Why has he not announced his pledge to be the #1 receiver at Iowa yet? seems a perfect fit for an offense lacking that true #1 receiver. One player, like Mc-Mc-Mc-Nutt last year can make a huge difference and change defensive schemes alot. Anyway....your thoughts on that? Thanks!

Brian Bennett: Matt, if we excluded people who were occasionally rude around here, we'd have very few readers. Anyway, two problems with your scenario: 1) Kersey would not be eligible right away at another school this season because he has already played a game. In fact, NCAA rules said players had to transfer before they started practicing this fall to take advantage of the special transfer waiver. Kersey could be eligible next season without having to sit out a year if he transferred. 2) Have you seen Kersey play? While he has talent and potential, he has only 12 career catches. He's no Marvin McNutt.


Drew from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: I really struggle to understand the media obsession with Michigan State this season. I understand that their D is very good, but they're the favorite to represent the B1G in the Rose Bowl after beating a Boise St team that returned the fewest starters in the nation and then playing an awful CMU team? How does that make them better than Nebraska or Michigan, each of which has played better teams throughout the first 2 weeks. Shed some light on it please.

Brian Bennett: First of all, don't discount Boise State. That's a good team that is going to win a bunch of games this year. But mostly, Michigan State has an elite defense, and no other Big Ten team right now can say it is elite on one side of the ball. Couple that with a strong running game led by Le'Veon Bell and good depth everywhere, and you've got a team that knows its identity, which is more than several league teams can say right now. Time will tell, and this weekend's Notre Dame game is no layup. But the Spartans have that look to me this year.


Tom from Chicago writes: Brian, with Notre Dame now joining the ACC and agreeing to play 5 games against ACC teams a year one has to think this could spell the end of a couple of their rivalries with B1G teams? Which series' are most likely to end? In my mind it seems as if the Michigan series might be most likely to end (they are taking a two-year break there after 2017). Also if the UM ND series ends could we see Michigan taking a similar scheduling approach as Ohio and scheduling home and homes with a different big time opponent each year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, Tom. Michigan and Michigan State already have some breaks built in with their agreements with Notre Dame. I suspect that will be the norm going forward. I'd be surprised to see either series end, but I think we could see it become less of an annual game, with frequent breaks for other opponents. Notre Dame has made no secret of its desire to play on the West Coast, in the South and in neutral site games for recruiting purposes. And Michigan has already begun to schedule Pac-12 opponents such as Utah and Colorado. The series I'd worry most about is Notre Dame-Purdue. While the Boilermakers love the rivalry and want it played every year, I don't see what the Irish get out of it other than proximity. It doesn't help them as far as recruiting or much in the way of exposure.


Andrew from Omaha writes: After reading through your Take Two on Tuesday, couldn't it be argued that with the current performance of the defense that Taylor Martinez's name should be added to that list? True, he only threw for 179 yards (never expected to put an only before that passing number for him) with no TDs and 1 pick, but he also was keeping us alive at 27 all entering the 4th quarter! I don't see how we avoid a backslide to the Callahan years without Taylor at this point ...

Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that Martinez is extremely valuable to Nebraska, but I don't see him as indispensable right now as Denard Robinson or Braxton Miller. That's because Martinez already has help from the running game -- Ameer Abdullah ran for over 100 yards and two touchdowns, and Rex Burkhead is expected back soon. Ohio State has no such offensive complement right now, and Robinson got very little assistance last week against Air Force.


Bo from Seattle writes: Illinois' greatest strengths? Teams on their schedule they match up well against and may surprise/upset?

Brian Bennett: Despite the extremely poor showing at Arizona State, I still think the defense is the team's greatest strength. The Illini may be more vulnerable to spread and tempo teams than we realized, if the results against the Sun Devils are to be extrapolated, but they are still very good against the run. The offense is still very much a work in progress, to put it kindly, but I did like the way Josh Ferguson ran on his way to a 100-yard night. Picking an Illinois upset is tough because the team's three toughest games (Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State) are all on the road. But if Wisconsin's offensive line hasn't improved, the Illini could find some success against the Badgers in a key Leaders Division game.


Nate from Council Bluffs, Iowa, writes: Brian, how come when it comes to red zone offense our play callers at Iowa haven't figured out that we have a 6'7" target we can throw to? C.J. Fiedorowicz should be our go-to target in those situations -- very confused. I know in any big coordinator changes it takes several seasons to get the right recruits to fit their schemes, but do you think we can expect the offensive performance to get worse before it gets better?

Brian Bennett: Nate, I share your confusion as to why Fiedorowicz hasn't been more of a weapon in the first two weeks. He has seven catches for 82 yards, and when the Hawkeyes went to him in the Iowa State game, he was pretty effective. Now, some of this is almost assuredly Fiedorowicz not getting open, or defenses keying on him. But Iowa right now doesn't have a lot of great options in the passing game, and I'd like to see the offense utilize its best mismatch more often.


Jim from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I find it interesting that Nebraska is going to face another spread offense this coming Saturday similar to the one which exposed the weaknesses of the blackshirts in Pasadena. Gus Malzahn's squad put up some yards and points on the likes of Oregon and will test Nebraska's defense again by forcing them to cover and tackle. I think how they adjust will tell us more about the defense minded Bo Pellini and what we can expect in BIG play than the problems they had at UCLA. Your thoughts on the game this Saturday and what you would like to see from the Blackshirts that would tell you which direction they are heading?

Brian Bennett: Pelini said Monday that this game comes at a good time for Nebraska, and I concur. While Nebraska won't see as many pure spread offenses in the Big Ten, it will have to face the spreads from Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. Arkansas State doesn't have the same level of athletes as UCLA (and no matchup nightmares like Joseph Fauria), but it will once again put the Huskers out in space. I want to see better tackling, first and foremost, because Nebraska's tackling against the Bruins was flat-out atrocious. I also want to see better speed in the back seven. UCLA ran right past the Blackshirts, and if a Sun Belt team can do the same thing, that's a major problem. Pelini said a personnel shakeup could be coming, and speedier linebackers Zaire Anderson and David Santos are likely to play more. Finally, I want to see that front four in the Arkansas State backfield all night. There's no reason that a Nebraska defensive line shouldn't dominate a Sun Belt offensive line.


Dave R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: As I've watched OSU's "dominant" defensive line underperform this year, it reminds me of how our linebackers underperformed last year. I've seen them rush only 3 lineman with some regularity. There are only two constants: 1) Mike Vrabel who coached linebackers last year and the DL this year and, 2) Luke Fickell who coached his Buckeyes to a 6-7 record and is presumably calling the defensive plays this year. My question is: who is more to blame for the underperformance of OSU's defense? Is it Vrabel? Is it Fickell (who may additionally be showing that he may not, in fact, be head coach material)?

Brian Bennett: I'm not willing to throw coaches under the bus after two games. The Ohio State defensive line has underperformed to a large degree, but you have to take into consideration that Michael Bennett has been hurt, Nathan Williams played only sparingly in one game and that true freshmen like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington have logged major minutes. This group should be judged on how it performs during Big Ten play, when the youngsters develop and hopefully some of the injured veterans are back.


J. Allen from Fishers, Ind., writes: Brian, as a Boilermaker who sat through that heart-breaking loss to Notre Dame this past Saturday, I have to wonder: Is there not a rule in college football (like in college b-ball) that penalizes a team for calling a timeout when they don't have any TO's remaining? Irish QB Rees called for a timeout on their final drive, but the team had none remaining.

Brian Bennett: It should be a five-yard delay of game penalty, J. It sure looked like Notre Dame should have gotten a delay call on that game-winning drive. But I'll say the same thing I said about the bad replay call on Wisconsin's onsides kick at Oregon State: play better, and it won't matter.


Alan from Columbus writes: Maybe Notre Dame going to the ACC is better for the B1G. The last thing we need is another perennially overrated program that can't win at the national level! What do you think?

Brian Bennett: After last weekend, Alan, you may just be on to something.