NCF Nation: Brady Hoke
Around that time, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes were wrapping up their final season as a Mountain West team. Utah, just two years removed from a 13-0 season and No. 2 BCS ranking, was regarded as one of the top non-AQ teams in the country and was headed to the newly-branded Pac-12.
Since leaving their old league in their wake, things haven't exactly gone according to script for these former A-list Mountain West coaches. And when their teams meet Saturday at The Big House, it's possible the outcome could alter the trajectories of their respective careers.
Hoke enjoyed an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year with the Wolverines but has seen declining returns after an 8-5 record in 2012 and a 7-6 mark last year. He sits on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.
Meanwhile, Whittingham and the Utes have struggled to adapt to Pac-12 football. The Utes are just 9-18 in conference play since joining the league (a vicious strain of yearly quarterback injuries doesn't go unnoticed) and have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Whittingham's seat isn't as hot as Hoke's, but if the Utes fail to make the postseason for a third straight year, it will be.
"No coach I know of pays any attention to external chatter," Whittingham said. "We're so focused on what we're doing. That's how you have to be. That's how you have to operate. You can't be distracted."
A victory Saturday puts the Utes at 3-0 heading into conference play and gives them a quality road win over a nationally-relevant opponent. A loss sends a signal that the Utes still aren't ready for Power 5 football.
A Michigan win won't make or break Hoke's career. But a loss could re-ignite an already agitated fan base still smarting from a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in Week 2.
"They all count as one win," Whittingham said. "If the Michigan game counted as two wins, it would be a lot more important. It's not a conference game, so it obviously doesn't impact what happens in our league. But every game is critical and we're not going to approach this one any differently."
Exactly what you'd expect Whittingham to say. However, after beating up on FCS teams, BYU and Mountain West teams the last three years in nonconference play, this is Utah's biggest non-league test since joining the Pac-12. And it's outside the state of Utah, where the Utes have only won once in the last two seasons.
There really isn't a common denominator for why both coaches have struggled in their new surroundings. Hoke went to an already established Power 5 team, rich in success and tradition. Whittingham was shepherding an entire program into a significantly tougher conference.
Still, Hoke inherited a Rich Rodriguez team that was built for the spread and an odd-front defense. His first three years have been spent trying to install a pro-style attack and an even-front defense.
Both coaches concede the obvious -- that the weekly grind in the Power 5 is significantly harder. In the Mountain West, Utah's season usually came down to one big game against TCU. This year they face a four-game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon and at Stanford -- four teams currently ranked in the AP top 20.
"Everyone in the Pac-12 has to deal with that, so it's not unique to us," Whittingham said. "It's a big difference from what we experienced at the non-Power 5 level ... The recruiting is better. It's all about players. Coaches are way overrated. It's all about players and personnel. The personnel in the Pac-12 is markedly better than the personnel in the Mountain West across the board."
In their two Mountain West meetings, Whittingham's Utes beat Hoke's Aztecs both times. But given the coaching and personnel changes, those game films are moot. And while Whittingham is trying to bring his team to the next level, Hoke is scrambling to hold on to the position he called his "dream job" a year before he even had it.
"You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you are representing and I think we've got great leadership on this team," Hoke said of the outside noise calling for his ouster. "... We understand how we need to compete every Saturday and go about our business."
For both coaches, Saturday might be just as much about staying in business.
Notre Dame would beat USC 14-10. The Irish would beat Michigan State 17-13. They would beat Michigan 13-6. A win is a win is a win -- 37 in all through his first four seasons, best start ever by a Notre Dame coach -- and Kelly would remind everyone, including his own players at times, that you take it and move on.
The Irish stand 2-0 following Saturday's shutout of Michigan, halfway through the "manageable" first third of their schedule. And while the competition level through two weeks can be debated, and while all that premature Heisman talk is, well, premature, it is a whole lot easier this time around to look down the road and envision the tantalizing possibilities that could await these Irish if all comes together.
This was far from an overnight revelation for Kelly. It has, nonetheless, breathed new life into a program amid a new era of scheduling (ACC deal) and postseason possibilities (playoff/access bowls).
"When I came to Notre Dame, I didn't think it would take us five years to kind of get to the offense that we wanted to run," Kelly said Sunday. "It's just the circumstances have been such. But we're starting to evolve into the kind of offensive and defensive structure that allows us to play fast and play aggressive, play the kind of style of football we want to play. It's taken some time to get there, and we've still got a long way to go. But it's obviously been a good start."
It begins with Everett Golson, the once-beleaguered signal-caller who has bounced back from a season-long suspension to do everything asked of him and then some through two games. He has completed 37 of 56 passes for 521 yards, tallying eight total touchdowns and avoiding a single turnover. He has shown much more command of the offense and a better understanding of the game as a whole, zipping passes before defenses can get to him and making something out of nothing when under duress. He has done all this despite being the victim of a number of drops, despite missing his best target in DaVaris Daniels, one of five suspended players whose status perplexingly remains unclear.
"I think they also use him well," said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose team forced Golson out of action two years ago before being picked apart by him the second time around, Saturday.
"I think Brian does a good job. There's a lot of three-step game in it, a lot of slants. I think that he's matured. I think I said that this week coming in, he's a much better quarterback than he was two years ago. Just watching the Rice game, I would say the same thing after watching our game."
The Stanford vulnerabilities that an undermanned USC squad revealed Saturday make the Irish's Oct. 4 matchup with the Cardinal look all the more winnable. Notre Dame may very well be favored now in its next four games and, frankly, should win those next four games.
The math isn't all that difficult, not with that Oct. 18 date at the national champs' house standing out a little bolder than the rest: Can Notre Dame enter Tallahassee with a 6-0 record?
Who knew three weeks ago, when news of the school's internal academic investigation broke, that that would be a question asked so soon? Who knew that Kelly and Golson would be fielding Heisman Trophy questions two games into the season?
"Avoid the noise," Golson said, "avoid the noise."
"Yeah, let's put him up for it," Kelly was cracking minutes earlier. "Sure. Throw him in there."
The novelty of a new season has brought on new questions through two games. And the man answering most of them no longer looks worse for the wear.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship before earning Notre Dame's starting middle linebacker role. He is a coach's dream who never makes one game or snap out to be bigger than it really is.
Yet when Schmidt entered the media room after Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan, the optimist in him was outdone by the sheer absurdity of the goodbye his young and unproven defense had just delivered the Wolverines.
"You want to believe that this is something you can accomplish every time you go on the field," Schmidt said. "And there's still a lot of things we could've done better today, but …"
He paused for three seconds and collected himself with a deep breath.
"Shoot. This is a great feeling right now."
As finales go, this was more Sopranos than Breaking Bad, a much-hyped shootout that turned into a dramatic letdown. Notre Dame didn't just send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 1-1 record and a bad taste in its mouth from being on the losing end of these programs' final meeting. No, the Irish flat-out demoralized the Wolverines. They bullied their hapless offensive line, shredded their patchwork secondary and delivered one indignity after another following a week that did nothing but suggest the visitors would be the ones who would enter with chips on their shoulders.
"I just got the stat from [SID Michael] Bertsch: 1984 was the last time these guys were shut out?" Schmidt said as he double-checked with reporters. "I think that kind of speaks for itself on how great this feels right now for me and for this defense and for this team."
Michigan left here last time feeling disrespected, with athletic director David Brandon on the receiving end of a cancellation letter from counterpart Jack Swarbrick. The Wolverines had said what Notre Dame did to them was a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, the Irish announced Thursday they would play a future series against Michigan's arch-rival, Ohio State.
What Notre Dame did to Michigan before a sellout crowd under the lights was far more humiliating.
The Wolverines seemingly dared Everett Golson to beat them with his arm. He looked every bit as lethal as he did last week against Conference USA member Rice and completed 23 of 34 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns.
Michigan's quarterback, Devin Gardner, received help from no one but Devin Funchess, which led coach Brady Hoke to defend why he stuck with his signal caller after Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a third-quarter fumble on a reckless spin move Schmidt saw coming from a mile away.
"Sometimes it just opens up, and as a defensive player, that's the stuff you lay awake at night dreaming of," Schmidt said. "Quarterback's back, ball's right there, you know you can force the fumble."
Gardner's predecessor, Denard Robinson, had tossed four picks and lost one fumble in a 2012 loss to Notre Dame. That was against the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, the catalyst behind an Irish team that went all the way to the BCS title game.
This year's defense started eight new faces from a year ago in its second game under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who himself turned into an overnight internet celebrity for a raucous late-game celebration.
"I would say it really just ceases all the doubts about, We're young, 'Can we execute?'" Jaylon Smith (10 tackles) said.
VanGorder can be forgiven for his excitement, but the best was yet to come.
Whereas Hoke had quipped last year that Notre Dame was chickening-out of this rivalry — a brushfire Michigan threw gasoline on by playing the "Chicken Dance" after its win over Notre Dame in 2013 — Notre Dame fans took matters into their own hands in the closing minutes and started a stadium-wide rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."
And that wasn't even the final indignity.
On what looked like it would be the final play of the game, Gardner was picked off one last time by Elijah Shumate, who returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. Michigan personnel had already made their way to the locker room, having escaped the hysteria engulfing Notre Dame Stadium — except the officials ruled Max Redfield had roughed the passer on the return, the touchdown didn't count and the game couldn't end on a defensive penalty. This made for an awkward delay, as the playing grounds cleared and a chunk of the Wolverines' roster made the long walk back through the tunnel and onto the FieldTurf before going right back up after the Irish showed mercy and took a knee.
"We temper it by knowing that we got a long season ahead of us, and it counts as one, it doesn't count as two," said coach Brian Kelly, who tried so hard all week to not give in to the hype. "If it counted as two, we would probably be a little bit happier, but it counts as one.
"But there's no question -- I would be lying if I told you that it doesn't feel great to shut out Michigan 31-0."
The Irish? Why, the Golden Domers are way too cool for Michigan anyway. It's the Wolverines who are distraught, remember? "We" dumped "them." "They" need "us" more, because Michigan doesn't have another big game (or two) to circle on its calendar every year. Nope. And in case you weren't already convinced just how little Notre Dame concerns itself with Michigan, Irish fans are shelling out only $349 per person to get into the building Saturday. You know, just to prove that they don't care.
Michigan and Notre Dame will have gotten together only 42 times after this weekend. But the fact this relationship has been put on hiatus so often speaks to the complicated feelings between the two sides. Breaking up is hard to do.
Want mixed messages? Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick may have delivered the divorce papers to Michigan AD David Brandon before the 2012 game, but the Wolverines had given off the vibe that this was an open relationship. Less than three weeks before delivering the edict, the Irish had set up future dates with the ACC and were feeling a little claustrophobic. There was a three-year out clause in the Michigan agreement that simply made this affair the easiest for Swarbrick to get out of. Four months beforehand, Brandon himself had been non-committal about anything long-term. And there was already a fork in the road awaiting both parties in 2018 and 2019.
Brandon said he was blindsided in 2012. Swarbrick told the AP this week that he had let Brandon know in a phone call beforehand. In case that wasn't clear, Notre Dame announced Thursday -- two days before its last meeting with Michigan -- that it has a pair of dates with Ohio State.
We've heard you've been talking about us, Michigan. Now excuse us while we make arrangements to see the homecoming queen down the road ...
"For a team to opt out of that contract, and to opt out of playing another team that is a great rival and is one of those great games, it's almost like a slap in the face," Michigan defensive end Frank Clark told reporters.
Countered Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson: "I don't think I get into all of the hype of the game and things like that. But at the same time, you have to take care of business and you have to prepare."
This latest wave of accusations from each side of the family simply follows what's in their bloodlines.
Michigan may have taught Notre Dame how to play football ... but then the Wolverines blocked the Irish from Big Ten entry.
Michigan may have canceled the 1910 game a year after its first defeat in the series ... but Notre Dame had been using ineligible players.
On and on it goes, from the Fielding Yost-Knute Rockne feud that kept the union on ice for a 32-year stretch, to the tit-for-tat on the all-time winning percentage record -- a battle that, fittingly, is at stake Saturday.
"Who knows when is going to be the last game?" Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said. "We just know we aren't going to play them in the near future."
Irish coach Brian Kelly is also looking ahead.
"We understand the great tradition and the rivalry of the Michigan game, and if it could have worked, it would have worked," Kelly said. "But it does open up some pretty exciting games in the future."
It was hardly a picture-perfect marriage, but it was far more than a fling. Here's to one more fond memory Saturday night.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nothing had changed physically for Devin Funchess, but his jersey no longer fit.
The number was all wrong now, especially since the No. 87 was reserved at Michigan for a tight end and Funchess was now officially, fully a wide receiver after previously shuffling between positions.
And while the process of switching numbers isn’t an overnight proposition at a program with as much history as Michigan, Funchess knew something had to be done to make sure he looked right and was paying the proper respects to the school’s rich tradition before opening the season last weekend against Appalachian State.
“I felt like No. 87 was more of a tight end number,” Funchess said. “I was just thinking of a number, and I was always watching highlights, and I saw David Terrell and Anthony Carter, Tyrone [Butterfield] and of course Braylon [Edwards]. I saw those guys, and I think I fit that frame.
“I think the No. 1 fit me.”
Earning the right to put it on for the first time, though, wasn’t as simple as Funchess just asking for a new digit and expecting a different uniform to show up in his locker.
The first step was actually becoming a full-timer at the position, which new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier made clear that Funchess would be this fall while challenging him to learn not only all of his responsibilities on the field, but those of each of the other wideouts in the formation as well.
Then Funchess asked for feedback from respected team leaders throughout offseason workouts and training camps, checking in with them to make sure he was putting in enough effort to earn the right to switch.
He also had to be sure that No. 1 was the best choice for him, with hours of watching highlights of former Michigan stars wearing that famous digit helping convince Funchess he was ready to pick up the torch and add his name to the list.
Finally there were the not-so-small matters of making the request to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, calling the family of Michigan’s designated legend for the No. 87 jersey, Ron Kramer, to get approval to make a change and ultimately passing something of a history test to prove that Funchess understood what he was asking for in becoming just the seventh wide receiver in Michigan history and first since 2004 to wear the iconic jersey.
“Devin being more of a wide receiver, obviously, he thought that's what he wanted to do,” Hoke said. “Believe me, I asked him who has worn No. 1.
“He started with Anthony Carter and went down the list, and I think that he has earned it.”
Less than a week before the Wolverines emerged from the locker room to open the season, Hoke gave the final blessing on Sunday of game week and Funchess had his new look.
And just before taking the field six days later and providing some strong evidence that he’ll only add to the legacy of the uniform by scoring the first three touchdowns of the season for the Wolverines and making life miserable for Appalachian State defenders helpless against his size and speed, Funchess snuck in a quick glance at the number now on his chest.
“It gave me goosebumps,” Funchess said. “A number is just a number. But, you know, this number just brings a bigger target for me because off all those greats that have played here and worn that number.
“Everybody has been kind of wondering [about moving on from tight end], I just felt like when Coach Nuss told me I was going to move outside permanently, I had to get a different mindset to that position.”
And a different number. But in terms of production, nothing appears to be any different with the latest in a line of Michigan receivers now all set to torment defensive backs while wearing the No. 1.
Several coaches in the Big 12 and Pac-12 told ESPN.com last week that they liked Pelini's proposal, which would give recruits a chance to sign as soon as they were offered a scholarship. The intent would be to slow down the recruiting process and make coaches accountable for offers, which currently are extended with zero consequences.
"It makes so much sense," Pelini told ESPN.com on Monday. "People say, 'Oh, let's just have an early signing day.' Why have a signing day at all? It would solve a lot of problems. I haven't heard a lot of reaction from conference administrators and people like that, but I would love to see it, at least start talking about it."
But getting a radical recruiting idea -- or any recruiting proposal -- through the convoluted legislative process isn't easy. It's downright impossible.
"That's the frustrating thing," Pelini said. "We as coaches talk. I just think for this to move forward, you've got to get everybody in the same room. There has to be a willingness to change. Why does everything take so long? You have to go through this committee and that committee and then you get the feedback."
Several Big Ten coaches recently have made recruiting proposals to reform a process that seems to be getting increasingly flawed. The Maryland Terrapins' Randy Edsall would like to prevent scholarship offers from being extended until a prospect's senior season. The Michigan Wolverines' Brady Hoke would like official visits to be allowed at the end of a prospect's junior year to ease the financial burden on players' families.
Most Big Ten coaches favor an earlier signing date -- Hoke wants it on Aug. 1 -- and earlier official visits, ideally during a short window in June when they're conducting high school camps. But coaches from other leagues don't want any changes to the calendar.
"I don't want to expediate recruiting any more," Auburn Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com last week. "It's too fast now."
Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz calls that "a laughable excuse."
"Is anybody paying attention to anything?" Ferentz said. "The facts are recruiting is accelerated, and the facts are people and families are traveling at record amounts.
"But we choose not to address it."
Ferentz and his Big Ten colleagues will continue to push for changes to the recruiting calendar. But they're not holding their breath.
"Get everybody in the same room and let's figure out what works," Pelini said. "I don't think it's that difficult."
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
- Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
- Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
- The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
- Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
- Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
- James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
- The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
- Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
- Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
- The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
This list examines the five most significant nonleague games for Big Ten teams. They're rated according to quality of the opponent, expectations for the Big Ten team, where the game is being played and when it's being played. There's a drop-off after the top two contests but all five games matter in shaping Big Ten perception.
Without further ado ...
1. Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: Michigan State handed Ohio State its first loss under Urban Meyer and then beat preseason national title contender Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The next step, as the Spartans openly acknowledge, is competing for a national title. It might take an upset victory at Autzen Stadium -- one of the nation's toughest venues for a visiting team -- or at least a good showing to remain in the playoff mix. But a win would be huge, not only for Michigan State's profile as a program that has moved up in class, but for the Big Ten, which has struggled in true road games against the Pac-12. A close loss wouldn't ruin MSU's playoff hopes. A blowout loss would damage the Big Ten's push for respect.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (at Houston), Aug. 30: The opponent isn't as sexy and the location isn't as daunting, but any win against an upper-class SEC opponent benefits the Big Ten. Wisconsin enters the season with numerous questions, from quarterback to receiver to defensive front seven, but it can provide a resounding answer about its expectations by upsetting LSU at NRG Stadium. It's a big opportunity for Badgers running back Melvin Gordon to make a statement in the Heisman Trophy race against a top defense. A Wisconsin win would put the Badgers in the playoff discussion, given their favorable Big Ten schedule. A double-digit loss adds to the SEC's superiority case against the Big Ten.
3. Miami at Nebraska, Sept. 20: This is a hold-serve game for both Nebraska and the Big Ten, and it's a bit more significant for the Huskers than the league as a whole. Bo Pelini's team simply has to win this one, especially on its home field against a Miami team that has had major personnel problems during the offseason. Miami isn't UCLA, and Nebraska can't have a meltdown like it did in last year's top nonleague showdown. Unless Nebraska stumbles at Fresno State the week before, it should be poised to improve to 4-0 with a win, two weeks before the first of several Big Ten road tests at Michigan State. A victory keeps the possibilities alive for Nebraska. A loss here, and it's hard to envision the Huskers winning in East Lansing, Madison or Iowa City.
4. Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6: This is very similar to the previous game: a home contest against a good but not great ACC opponent that the Big Ten team absolutely has to win to remain nationally relevant. Ohio State likely will enter the season as the Big Ten favorite and the league's best bet to reach the playoff, but it can't afford a slip-up against Virginia Tech. Unlike Michigan State, which probably could remain in the playoff hunt with a close loss at Oregon and a Big Ten title, Ohio State might have to run the table to make the top four. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Virginia Tech is no longer an ACC bigfoot that provides a schedule boost. Ohio State has to take care of business on its home field, ideally by 10 points or more.
5. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6: This one is tricky. The game pops nationally because it's Michigan and Notre Dame. It's also the teams' last meeting for the foreseeable future. It's Notre Dame Stadium under the lights. And it's big for Michigan. But has there been a more misleading game for Michigan in recent years? What have the recent Notre Dame victories -- 2013, 2010, 2009 -- meant for Michigan? Bupkis. The dramatic win in 2011 propelled Michigan to an 11-win season, but for the most part these games have been big teases for the Maize and Blue. Still, Michigan needs an early win away from Ann Arbor, if only because tougher road tests -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- follow during Big Ten play. Perhaps this season mirrors 2011 and the Notre Dame game actually propels Brady Hoke's team. Although Big Ten wins against Notre Dame haven't meant much, they don't hurt, either.
Five more games with B1G importance: Iowa at Pitt, Sept. 20; Nebraska at Fresno State, Sept. 13; Minnesota at TCU, Sept. 13; Cincinnati at Ohio State, Sept. 27; Northwestern at Notre Dame, Nov. 15.
Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.
The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.
If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.
"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."
NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.
The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.
"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"
DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.
Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."
"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.
"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."
DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.
It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."
Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.
Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.
"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."
Coaches say the parental component is critical.
"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."
"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."
Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.
"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."
Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."
The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.
It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."
Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.
"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."
That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.
"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."
The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.
As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.
The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.
Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.
"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."
A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.
Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.
"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."
Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.
Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.
"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."
That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)
Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."
Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."
There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.
"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?
"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”
College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.
"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
Michigan lost a heartbreaker Nov. 30 to Ohio State 42-41 in Lewan's final home game at the Big House, dropping him to 1-3 against the rival Buckeyes. Hours later, in the early morning of Dec. 1, Lewan was involved in an incident involving an Ohio State fan. Lewan claimed he was trying to break up a fight and relayed his version of what happened to NFL teams in the predraft process. But Buckeyes fan James Hughes claimed Lewan punched him in the face, and Lewan was charged with one count of aggravated assault and two counts of assault and battery.
The Associated Press on Thursday obtained the police report from the incident, which includes statements from Lewan's ex-girlfriend, who claims Lewan assaulted Hughes.
Alexandra Dileo, whose brother was a teammate of Lewan's, said "Taylor is lying" about his actions on Dec. 1.
"He knocked the guy to the ground and he punched him," she told police in a telephone interview Jan. 29, according to the report. She recalled hearing Lewan tell his mother "I knocked a guy out" the next morning while they were having breakfast.
Alexandra Dileo is the sister of former Michigan wide receiver Drew Dileo, one of Lewan's good friends on the team.
As soon as the AP story broke Thursday, some Michigan fans questioned Alexandra Dileo's credibility, since she and Lewan had broken up and Lewan soon will become a millionaire with the Titans. Lewan's attorneys undoubtedly will make the same argument, which Dileo acknowledged in her conversation with police.
Dileo expressed concerns to police that people would feel she was lying because she and Lewan had broken up, according to the report. But she "stated she knows what happened and Taylor is lying."
What really happened Dec. 1 in Ann Arbor depends on whom you believe. At the very least, it creates an awkward situation for Lewan and Drew Dileo.
It also raises more questions about Lewan, one of the more polarizing star players in the Big Ten in recent years.
"I was actually breaking something up and some guy said that I slugged him, but that's not who I am off the field," Lewan told reporters at the NFL combine in February. "That's not the kind of person I am."
Who is Taylor Lewan? Good citizen or bully? Textbook tackle or dirty player? All of the above?
Few would deny he's an exceptional football player -- a tall, strong, athletic, smart offensive tackle who should have a long NFL career. He's a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Ten selection who won Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors in both 2012 and 2013. Any credible list of Michigan's top offensive linemen in the past 20 years should include Lewan's name.
But he'll also be remembered for twisting the facemask of Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis in last year's loss to the Spartans. Lewan later apologized.
Two years earlier, he was on the receiving end of a punch from Michigan State defensive end William Gholston that resulted in a one-game suspension for Gholston. But many believe Lewan wasn't free of blame in that incident.
Lewan also had to defend himself against allegations he tried to intimidate a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons, another of Lewan's friends.
It doesn't add up to a squeaky-clean image, which Lewan acknowledged at the combine.
"It kills me inside," Lewan said. "It probably kills my mother, too. She helped raise me. But yeah, it hurts definitely because the player I am on the field, it's probably really easy to assume all those things about me. But that’s not who I am at all."
Lewan always had an edge to his game. He was a through-the-whistle lineman. Last spring, he told me: "Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it. Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine."
In the next breath, he talked about spending his final year at Michigan exploring campus life beyond Schembechler Hall, interacting with regular students and parts of the university that have nothing to do with football. Athletes often live in a bubble and Lewan wanted to venture beyond. It was an impressive and refreshing viewpoint from a guy who turned down millions because, in his mind, he hadn't become a Michigan Man.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke repeatedly defended Lewan's character this spring, noting that assumptions would be made about the Dec. 1 incident until the truth comes out. Hoke pointed out Lewan's work at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and other good things he did in the community during his time as a Wolverine.
"I believe that his character will shine through," Hoke told the NFL Network.
Time will tell if that's the case. Lewan's next court appearance is scheduled for June 16.
It could shape a Michigan legacy that, for now, must be labeled as mixed.
Although NCAA rules limit programs from running high school camps more than 50 miles from their campus, coaches are allowed to work at camps outside of the radius as long as they don't run the events.
"The Big Ten and NCAA rules allow you to do these things," Franklin recently told reporters during a Coaches Caravan stop in King of Prussia, Pa. "We wanted to not only have camps on our campus, which we're going to have a bunch of them, but also be able to maybe take the Penn State brand and be able to take it to part of the country that maybe young men and families wouldn't be able to make it to our place, take it to them.
"And I'm fired up about it."
But Franklin's former SEC brethren aren't fired up. Unlike the morally reprehensible Big Ten, the SEC prohibits coaches from working at camps beyond 50 miles from campus. Again, it's all about integrity in that league.
So SEC coaches have complained to their commissioner, Mike Slive, to step in and try to stop Franklin and his attempt to enter their sacred ground.
"It's that kind of thing that gets us to think about our rules," Slive said. "They [SEC coaches] like our rule; they don't like the so-called satellite camps. They see it as a loophole and asked us to see what we can do about that."
Slive said the SEC would have to approach the NCAA about closing the loophole.
You go and do that, Commissioner Slive. March yourself to Indianapolis. By golly, someone needs to stand up for doing things the right way. And if the NCAA asks about oversigning, just show them your championship rings. So sparkly!
The truth is other programs are capitalizing on the same loophole. As colleagues Brett McMurphy and Edward Aschoff report, coaches from Oklahoma State and New Mexico plan to work several camps in Texas this summer. While Florida and Georgia are among the highest-producing states for FBS prospects, Texas tops the list.
So Franklin isn't the only one. But his plan to extend the recruiting reach for a Penn State program that has largely ignored the fertile South in recent years is brilliant. Everyone asks me how the Big Ten can close the gap with the SEC. The answer is to spend more time in its territory.
"This thing that James Franklin did with Georgia State, that’s a stroke of genius," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at LSU and Vanderbilt, told me. "If Penn State continues to do that, and other Big Ten schools continue to have an agreement with these smaller Southern schools and you can officially visit a prospect in May and June, it will be the most significant move in favor of Big Ten football in my lifetime."
Just wait until more Big Ten coaches begin stumping for earlier official visits, which would help their cause tremendously. Michigan's Brady Hoke is on board. So are many others in the league.
It'll be fun to see how the SEC reacts to that campaign.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork offered this gem at SEC spring meetings when asked about Franklin's summer Southern migration. By the way, arguably no SEC program has a more storied oversigning tradition than Ole Miss.
"That's our backyard, so anytime those things happen, your eyes and ears perk up to say, What do we need to address [the issue] if that's a hindrance?" Bjork said. "If it's a competitive disadvantage, then we need to look at it."
Competitive disadvantage! Sound the alarms! The Big Ten is gonna get us!
To quote the other Björk:
You're all right
There's nothing wrong
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You'll meet an army of me
The SEC should stop complaining about, of all things, a potential challenge to its recruiting hegemony. Better yet, it should change its policy and come on up to Big Ten country. Nick Saban loves Ohio. Les Miles is a Michigan guy. Kevin Sumlin went to Purdue.
How could Division III power Wisconsin-Whitewater turn down a chance to bring back favorite son Bret Bielema to America's dairyland?
But maybe it's better that the SEC coaches dig in on this issue. Remember, they're all about fairness and honor in recruiting.
And 37-man recruiting classes.