NCF Nation: Tim Brewster

Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.
There's hardly ever a perfect time to part ways with a coach, especially one who has had success. Some programs opt to nudge out long-tenured, mostly successful coaches only to pay the price later for their decisions. Others that part ways with a veteran coach end up seeing improvement. ESPN.com is taking a closer look at this topic today, and we're putting it under the Big Ten microscope.

Here are some notable Big Ten (and Nebraska) coaching forceouts:

LLOYD CARR, Michigan (1995-2007)

What happened: A longtime Michigan assistant for Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller, Carr moved into the top job in 1995 and two years later guided Michigan to a national title. He led the Wolverines to at least a share of five Big Ten championships and six bowl victories, including the 1998 Rose and 2000 Orange bowls. Carr had the Wolverines positioned for another national title run in 2006 as they faced archrival Ohio State in an epic matchup of undefeated teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 nationally. But Carr's squad fell to Jim Tressel's Buckeyes, a theme during the later part of Carr's tenure. The 2007 season began with a humiliating loss to Football Championship Subdivision team Appalachian State. Although Carr officially retired in November 2007, there certainly was some pressure for the school to go in a new direction.

[+] EnlargeLloyd Carr
Chris Livingston/Icon SMILloyd Carr is carried off the field following Michigan's win over the Gators in the Capital One Bowl, which was Carr's final game.
What happened next: Michigan went away from its coaching tree and plucked Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia to succeed Carr. It was a rocky situation from the start that never truly smoothed out. Rodriguez's first Michigan team in 2008 might have been the worst ever, tumbling to 3-9 and ending the school's streak of consecutive bowl appearances at 33. The following summer, Michigan admitted to committing major violations for the first time in its history -- relating to practice time -- and self-imposed probation. The Wolverines once again missed a bowl game in 2009 and struggled to make one in Rodriguez's third season. After a blowout loss in the 2011 Gator Bowl, Michigan fired Rodriguez, who went just 15-22 at Michigan (6-18 Big Ten, 0-3 against Ohio State). Michigan might have slipped a bit from the ranks of the elite under Carr, but the program plummeted to historic depths under Rodriguez. Michigan replaced Rodriguez with former Carr assistant Brady Hoke.

JOHN COOPER, Ohio State (1988-2000)

What happened: After a rocky start (4-6-1 in 1988), Cooper went on a nice run at Ohio State in the mid- to late 1990s, averaging 10.3 victories between 1993 and 1998. He guided Ohio State to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 13 years during the 1996 season and emerged with a victory against Arizona State. He also won the Sugar Bowl after the 1998 season and coached Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. But Cooper had two problems: an inability to beat archrival Michigan (2-10-1) and struggles in bowl games (3-8). Three times the Buckeyes entered The Game with a perfect record -- 1993, 1995 and 1996 -- and fell to the Wolverines. After a 6-6 clunker in 1999 and another loss to Michigan in 2000, Ohio State fired Cooper, who finished second on the school's all-time coaching wins list, behind Woody Hayes, with 111.

What happened next: Ohio State made an unorthodox move in bringing in Youngstown State's Tressel to succeed Cooper. It paid off as Tressel guided the Buckeyes to a national title in his second season. Ohio State remains the only Big Ten team to win a crystal football during the BCS era. Tressel ended up dominating the Big Ten (six titles) and Michigan (8-1) during his tenure, leading Ohio State to five BCS bowl wins (one vacated) and three appearances in the national title game. Although Tressel's tenure ended in scandal, he certainly boosted Ohio State's program after the Cooper era.

BILL MALLORY, Indiana (1984-1996)

What happened: After mostly successful runs at Miami (Ohio), Colorado and Northern Illinois, Mallory came to Indiana and put together an impressive run, reaching six bowl games between 1986 and 1993. He became the first man to win back-to-back Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1986 and 1987. Indiana had three top-four finishes in the Big Ten (1987, 1991, 1993), but after Mallory went just 5-17 (1-15 Big Ten) in 1995 and 1996, Indiana fired him. Mallory remains Indiana's all-time coaching wins leader (69) and is responsible for six of the Hoosiers' nine bowl teams.

What happened next: Indiana has yet to come close to achieving the type of moderate success it enjoyed in the Mallory era. The program struggled under Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo before surging a bit for the late Terry Hoeppner. Still, it took 11 seasons after Mallory's dismissal for Indiana to return to the postseason under Bill Lynch in 2007. Although the Hoosiers are making strides under Kevin Wilson, the program has a ways to go to match where it was under Mallory.

GLEN MASON, Minnesota (1997-2006)

What happened: Mason never got Minnesota to the promised land -- its first Big Ten championship since 1967 -- but he made the Gophers a consistent bowl team. He won six to eight games in six of his final eight seasons, slumping to a 4-7 finish in 2001 but breaking through with 10 victories in 2003. Minnesota reached bowls seven times under Mason, but his middling Big Ten record (32-48) and inability to challenge for league titles eventually stirred the administration into action. The school fired Mason two days after Minnesota squandered a 31-point third-quarter lead against Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl.

What happened next: The program backslid with the overmatched Tim Brewster at the helm, going 1-11 in 2007. Brewster made some splashes in recruiting but couldn't get enough talent to translate to the field. After a 7-1 start in 2008, the Gophers dropped their final five games, including a 55-0 decision to archrival Iowa at the Metrodome. A 6-7 season followed in 2009, and Minnesota fired Brewster after a 1-6 start in 2010. Brewster went 15-30 at the school and 6-21 in the Big Ten, which included an 0-10 mark in trophy games. His tumultuous tenure had many questioning why Minnesota ever got rid of Mason.

FRANK SOLICH, Nebraska (1998-2003)

What happened: A former Huskers fullback, Solich had the nearly impossible task of following coaching legend Tom Osborne, who won national titles in three of his final four seasons at the school. Solich won 42 games in his first four seasons, a Big 12 championship in 1999 and Big 12 North titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He guided the Huskers to the 2000 Fiesta Bowl championship, and the 2001 team, led by Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, played Miami for the national title at the Rose Bowl but fell 37-14. Nebraska then went 7-7 in 2002, its first nonwinning season since 1961. Solich rebounded with a 9-3 mark in 2003 but was fired despite a 58-19 record in Lincoln.

What happened next: Much like Michigan, Nebraska went away from its coaching tree and hired Bill Callahan, who had led the Oakland Raiders for two seasons. And much like Michigan, Nebraska paid a price as the program went downhill. The Huskers went 5-6 in Callahan's first year, their first losing campaign since 1961. They won eight games the following year and the Big 12 North in 2006, but a highly anticipated 2007 season fell apart, particularly for the celebrated Blackshirts defense. Nebraska surrendered 40 points or more in six games and went 5-7, leading to Callahan's dismissal. Although Nebraska has rebounded under Bo Pelini, its last conference championship came under Solich's watch, 14 long years ago.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Over the past four months, Florida State won an ACC championship, a BCS game, reeled in another top-10 recruiting class and sent a handful of players into the NFL draft with first-round promise.

Given the recent spate of unsightly 7-6 seasons, Florida State seems to be in pretty fantastic shape. That, of course, is not the storyline that has taken shape since December. No, the convenient storyline has focused mainly on the coaching turnover that has left the Seminoles with six new assistants heading into the 2013 season.

What does the unusually large turnover say about coach Jimbo Fisher? What does it say about the program itself?

At this point, the storyline has become rote. Fisher already has his answers before the questions are asked, prepared to bat down the notion that this very strange offseason has been, well, strange.

He begins.

“You know,” he says, “we were one of four teams in the entire country that did not lose a single assistant in my first two years here.”

Pretty astounding, when you consider just how frequently assistants change jobs year to year. But what is more astounding is hiring seven different assistants in a two-month span. One of those assistants, Billy Napier, lasted a handful of weeks before moving on to Alabama.

As Fisher tried to defend the staff turnover, he proved the point others have made. Coaching change is common in this profession, especially at winning programs. But the type of coaching change Florida State just experienced is as rare as scoring a safety on consecutive plays.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFSU coach Jimbo Fisher says he wasn't surprised by the amount of staff turnover this offseason.
Among programs that did not have a head coaching change, only Marshall had to replace more assistants than Florida State this past offseason. Point this out to Fisher and he shrugs.

“We took the attrition of three years and put it in one,” Fisher says simply.

Was he surprised that he lost so many assistants?

“Not really. Last year was a big year,” Fisher begins. “You go back and look at all the major jobs. When’s the last time you saw four major SEC schools open?”

Not since 2004. His defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, got the head coaching job at Kentucky and took assistant D.J. Eliot with him. Another assistant, Dameyune Craig, left for a co-offensive coordinator job at Auburn. Counting Napier, four assistants left for the SEC.

Fisher continues.

“The NFL has nowhere else to draw coaches from,” he says. “And we had a lot of success. We’re graduating players. Guys aren’t getting in trouble. People want to know how you’re having success. We had to have a proven commodity.

“We’re the eighth-winningest team in the last three years. We were 30th the previous three years. We’ve jumped more than any team in the country. So people say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all do research and look at who’s doing good and ask, ‘Why are they doing good? Are they doing something we’re not doing?’ People are saying, ‘Let’s get some of those guys and see why they’re having success and are able to change the culture and change a program.”

The other three coaches who left -- Eddie Gran (Cincinnati), Greg Hudson (Purdue) and James Coley (Miami) -- took coordinator jobs as well. Fisher points this out, too, and makes it clear he has never stood in the way of an assistant getting another job. After all, he allowed Stoops to interview at Kentucky in the middle of the season.

While all of the change may not look so great on the surface, the staff Fisher has assembled may in fact be better than the one he had his first two seasons with the Seminoles. When asked what he likes most about this staff, Fisher says, “No. 1, the experience. No. 2, their undaunting ability to work and put in hours. A lot of staffs you get recruiters or coaches. I think everybody on our staff can do both. We have a staff that’s very solid recruiting and very solid coaching. It’s hard to find nine guys capable that way.”

Perhaps that is a slight dig at his past staff. But there is no questioning the credentials of the men tasked with elevating Florida State from ACC champ into yearly national title contender. All of them have won conference titles; three have won national titles.

Fisher keeps a running list of potential candidates with him, so he knew exactly whom to call when all these jobs came open. How they arrived in Tallahassee plays like a game of Six Degrees of Jimbo Fisher.

  • You have quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who crossed paths with Fisher when both were assistants in the SEC some years ago. He also coached new running backs coach Jay Graham at Tennessee in the 1990s. The two have known each other since Graham was 17.
  • You have defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who come from the Nick Saban tree that also produced Fisher. Sunseri and Fisher were on the same staff at LSU in 2000.
  • You have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who never worked with Fisher but recruited against him when he was at Texas and Fisher was at LSU.
  • Then you have special teams coordinator, linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Fisher was there. Kelly also played against Fisher the past several seasons while working at Georgia Tech. When Kelly was with the Jackets, and Pruitt with the Tide, the two shared ideas.

“Florida State has always been one of the schools I’ve always wanted to work at,” Sanders said. “When I first got married and was first coaching, my wife asked me. I said this was one of the four schools in the country I’d love to work at some day. When the opportunity came along, I was excited to come to Tallahassee.”

He echoed what all the other assistants said during their only media availability this spring: the desire to win a national title. Indeed, the intensity during spring practice seemed to be turned up a notch. Both Sunseri and Pruitt are quite boisterous and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with their players -- face to face mask.

On one particular afternoon last month, Sunseri kept getting after defensive end Giorgio Newberry. At one point, Newberry just slung his big arm around Sunseri’s shoulder and chuckled.

“I give him a hug every once in a while,” Newberry said. “I love Coach Sal. I love how he coaches me. He doesn’t let us take plays off. We have to go hard every time, and we’ve got to do it his way. I like that. He’ll chew me out and I’ll be like, 'Yes sir' and I try to fix it.”

Graham is not as in-your-face, but he demands excellence. That was not so easy to get adjusted to for some of the backs.

“He wants you to be great, so he has very high expectations,” James Wilder Jr. said. “It was hard getting used to it at first. He wants everything perfect.”

Fisher has described the staff transition as seamless. He has veteran coaches that share his same philosophies and players who have embraced the changes. But the questions will linger on until kickoff in Pittsburgh on Sept. 2.

Perhaps even longer.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 11

November, 5, 2012
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Week 10 brought few surprises around the Big Ten. As a result, the power rankings see little shuffling before the second Saturday of November.

Ohio State cruised to a perfect 10-0, while Michigan and Penn State both recorded road wins in impressive fashion. In the two true toss-up games, Indiana outlasted Iowa and Nebraska rallied for a dramatic win against hard-luck Michigan State. Our top five teams from Week 9 remain the same. The toughest call comes at No. 3, as there's very little separating Penn State and Michigan, who unfortunately don't play this season. But both teams recorded decisive road wins, so we're keeping the Lions ahead for now. Both teams face bigger challenges in Week 11 with Nebraska and Northwestern, respectively.

Indiana makes a small move after its win, while the bottom of the league stays intact.

To the rundown:

1. Ohio State (10-0, 5-0, last week: 1): Ten straight weeks of games, 10 straight wins for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who get a well-deserved break after thumping Illinois at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State is 10-0 for the first time since 2007 as it chases its first perfect season since 2002, when it captured a national title. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde form the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield and the defense continues to make big plays, getting another interception from CB Travis Howard. Ohio State has scored 52 points or more in three Big Ten games. It resumes play Nov. 17 at Wisconsin.

2. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, last week: 2): For the second time in three weeks, Nebraska faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Legends Division road game. And once again, the Huskers found a way to win behind QB Taylor Martinez, who overcame three turnovers (nearly four) to fire the game-winning touchdown strike and eclipse 200 rush yards. Nebraska wouldn't announce itself in the Big Ten until it recorded signature road wins, and the Huskers finally have gotten over the hump after the Ohio State debacle Oct. 6. Bo Pelini's team is in control of the Legends Division and might lock it up with a win this week against Penn State.

3. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, last week: 3): Resiliency has been Penn State's calling card under Bill O'Brien, so it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions bounce back well from their first Big Ten loss. The Lions re-established the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, shutting down Purdue's offense and generating a nice power run game behind RB Zach Zwinak. Penn State racked up a season-high 506 yards of offense as QB Matt McGloin had another 300-yard passing performance. Gerald Hodges led the way on defense with three tackles for loss. Penn State has been dominant on the road in Big Ten play but faces its biggest test this week in Lincoln.

4. Michigan (6-3, 4-1, last week: 4): No Denard Robinson? No problem for Michigan despite a potentially tricky game at Minnesota. Devin Gardner moved from wide receiver to quarterback and stepped up in a big way in place of Robinson, while Gardner's fellow wideouts Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon picked him up with key catches as Michigan revived its passing attack against one of the nation's top pass defenses. The Wolverines' defense stepped up repeatedly in the red zone as Michigan retained the Little Brown Jug. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska to stay alive in the division race and needs to beat Northwestern this week.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 5): Pat Fitzgerald gave his team a "C" for October, as the Wildcats went 2-2 in a month in which they've historically struggled. Northwestern now enters a month in which it typically thrives under Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats remain alive in the Legends Division chase, although they need Nebraska to start losing. They'll look for some of their road magic the next two weeks against the Michigan schools, and they also hope to regain the services of injured defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. It'll be interesting to see if QB Kain Colter truly has control of the offense this week at the Big House.

6. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 7): The open week came at a perfect time for the Badgers, who must regroup after losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a season-ending broken clavicle. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips competed for the top job throughout the practice week, as the staff decides who will lead the offense in a now crucial game at Indiana before a tough closing stretch (Ohio State, at Penn State). The Badgers will need a big game from their defense in Bloomington and arguably a bigger game from Montee Ball and the rushing attack against an Indiana team that struggles against the run.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, last week: 6): Close losses have defined Michigan State's season, and the Spartans suffered another devastating setback Saturday after having Nebraska on the hopes. Controversial calls once again played into the outcome, but the Spartans' defense couldn't get the stops it needed and surrendered 313 rush yards to the Huskers. RB Le'Veon Bell came to play, but QB Andrew Maxwell had another rough day. Michigan State must regroup during an off week before fighting for bowl eligibility the final two weeks. It needs one more win and faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road).

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3, last week: 9): This isn't a great Indiana team, but it also isn't a typical Indiana team. Typical Hoosiers teams would have folded after falling behind 14-0 on their home field against Iowa. But the 2012 Hoosiers didn't back down, steadied themselves and outlasted Iowa to record back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007 and their first Big Ten home win since 2009. Cameron Coffman re-emerged at QB, while WR Cody Latimer had a huge day (7 catches, 113 yards, 3 TDs). The defense allowed only 14 points as IU set up a huge Leaders Division showdown this week against Wisconsin.

9. Minnesota (5-4, 1-4, last week: 8): Missed opportunity was the catchphrase for Minnesota on Saturday after failing to capitalize against a Robinson-less Michigan team. The Gophers couldn't build on a 7-0 lead and repeatedly stubbed their toe in the red zone, despite some decent play from QB Philip Nelson. Jerry Kill has cleansed the program of a lot of problems from the Tim Brewster era, but terrible penalties have remained. The Gophers have scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses. Minnesota's typically stout pass defense also struggled against a backup quarterback. The Gophers try to get bowl-eligible this week when they travel to slumping Illinois.

10. Iowa (4-5, 2-3, last week: 10): The Hawkeyes slipped below .500 for the first time since 2007, and barring a surprising turnaround, they won't get back on the right side of the mark this season. Despite a very strong start at Indiana, the same problems surfaced on both sides of the ball as Iowa couldn't translate yards into points and surrendered way too many yards to their opponent. Senior QB James Vandenberg will get more criticism, and his end zone interception didn't help, but the problems go beyond him on a team that just isn't very good in any area. Iowa could get well against Purdue this week but will be an underdog in its final two games (Michigan, Nebraska).

11. Purdue (3-6, 0-5, last week: 11): We wish we could drop Purdue lower after its fourth Big Ten blowout loss in five games. Alas, there's Illinois. One of those teams amazingly will get a Big Ten win when they meet Nov. 17 in Champaign. Purdue still can get bowl-eligible, but it will need a rapid turnaround in its final three games and show a lot more fight on the defensive side of the ball. The offense once again looked good on the opening drive and then disappeared, as QB Robert Marve couldn't stretch the field. Another poor performance at home before a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium turns up the heat even more on embattled coach Danny Hope.

12. Illinois (2-7, 0-5, last week: 12): We knew there would be no bowl for the Illini this year, but Ohio State made it official Saturday, handing Tim Beckman's team its seventh loss. After a decent first quarter, Illinois reverted to form and imploded before halftime. The offense once again couldn't stretch the field, and slumping junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception and completed 19 passes for only 96 yards. Illinois is right there with Colorado and Kentucky in the group of the worst major-conference teams in the country. The Illini need to generate something positive down the stretch before the 2013 campaign.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 28, 2012
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Some questions and answers before the weekend. Not surprisingly, a lot of you are weighing in on this story.

CK from Seattle writes: I'm going to call it right now Adam. B1G has a good bowl season (or at least better than recent years -- not saying much I know). Reason being the B1G teams seem to often play higher ranked teams and teams playing close to home. With our poor rankings this year, I imagine we'll have some more even matchups. That said -- Wisconsin has looked terrible, Michigan isn't impressive, MSU struggled against mediocre ND and Nebraska had a laugher in Cali. Verdict is still out on OSU. Well -- after saying that, I feel less confident, but still think we'll get better matchups this year.

Adam Rittenberg: CK, you very well could be correct. It's hard to envision the Big Ten keeping its streak of multiple BCS berths alive. Then again, I've thought the streak would end in the past, and it hasn't, as Big Ten teams and their massive fan bases remain so attractive to the big bowls. The matchups undoubtedly would be better and potentially more appropriate if the Big Ten only sends a team to the Rose Bowl. And if the Big Ten does well, I think the league will get credit because difficulty of bowl lineup doesn't seem to matter much with how leagues are perceived. That said, the Big Ten has to start winning Rose Bowls again. One victory in the past nine is pretty bad.




Dan from Austin, Texas, writes: As a proud PSU alum, it's tough to see the conference in this state. I agree with the premise you are attributing this to, however to understand why the talent pool is low, you have to understand what QBs in other markets are doing all year round. Look at how many Texas QBs are leading D1 programs around the country and starting in the NFL. The reason 7-on-7 leagues that were started about 10 years ago. You now have a generation of Texas QBs who have been able to have 2x to 3x more reps than QBs in the North.

Adam Rittenberg: I think 7-on-7 leagues are a factor, Dan, but spring football in the south might be a bigger one. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller told me that from a talent standpoint, the recruits he landed from Texas and other states weren't way above those from the Midwest. But the fact that the Midwest kids didn't have spring football in high school made them less prepared to play college ball right away. "The southern states are really getting the edge," Tiller told me. "Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren’t necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also noted that some southern states (Texas) have longer regular seasons than those in the Midwest, so players are playing more games before they arrive at college.




Steve from San Francisco writes: I can't agree with Earle Bruce, and not just because I went to Michigan. I think the quarterbacks in the league are not the problem. Look at Alabama. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron have led them to National Championships and they are not NFL caliber quarterbacks. Maybe they will be backups for a while, but they aren't carrying those teams, it is the top-down talent around them -- strong defenses, speedy, large, wide open receivers, and huge, yardage-churning running backs. Go back to UM-Bama to start the season, McCarron's and [Denard] Robinson's numbers were eerily similar, and how close was the final score? McCarron missed a bunch of receivers too, he just happened to also have 3 running backs tearing up the field. The question is: will the Big Ten ever be able to pull enough talent in all schools so that every class has the depth to match the SEC and I think the answer is no. I wanted to go to Michigan, but I grew up in the north. Most of the talent these days is in the south. Why would they ever go to a place that is frozen in the winter when they could be in the sun with girls in bikinis? Yes, you get your one-offs, but it is all positions talent and depth where the Big Ten has lost its prestige.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Steve. Bruce also told me the running back position is down in the Big Ten, and while I don't necessarily agree with him there, the number of elite QB-RB combinations might not be as high as it should be. The wide receiver spot certainly has been down in the league, and I would also look at cornerback as a weakness in recent years. Everyone points to defensive line play and says that's where the SEC has the advantage, but I look at the linemen the Big Ten has produced in recent years -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward, Jared Odrick etc. -- and don't see a massive shortage. Maybe there's not as much depth in the Big Ten as there is in the SEC, but I don't think there's a dearth at defensive line. Your last point is spot on. The issues go beyond just one position, and it's hard for the Big Ten to recruit overall rosters that can match the best teams from the SEC.




Brutus from the Ninth Circle writes: Hey Adam, have a question about Penn State. With the departure of Paul Jones, I'm beginning to think that there are 2 key things going on. First, [coach Bill] O'Brien knows that he has to get the scholarships down to a certain level and he has to "trim the fat," if that's the right phrase. Second, every team has under-performers, so they would be the first to go. It seems to me that BOB is cleaning house to get to the levels that he needs to be at, protecting the core players, and lightening the load with players that are less critical. Jones was the 3rd string quarterback and way down the list on TE. Seems like a good call to let Jones go. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, I don't think O'Brien is running players off from Penn State. I think he's being honest with them about their futures, and he didn't see a future for Jones at quarterback for the Lions. I believe O'Brien when he said he saw Jones as a contributor at tight end, but ultimately Jones wanted to play quarterback, as he tweeted Wednesday night, and he couldn't do that at Penn State. It's probably too soon to how Jones would have fared as a tight end for PSU, and there are quite a few players ahead of him at that spot. While I don't think O'Brien will lie awake at night thinking about how he could have kept Jones in State College, I don't think he's thrilled to see Jones leave. As O'Brien said Thursday night, Jones just needed a fresh start.




Dylan from Nebraska writes: Adam, Is there a Big 10 team that could, with some help, still contend for a national title? Would a 1-loss Nebraska, or Michigan St team make it? Would an undefeated Minny or Northwestern make it?

Adam Rittenberg: It's very hard to envision any Big Ten team taking the field in Miami on Jan. 7. The problem is the Big Ten didn't do much of anything in the first four weeks to justify having a 1-loss team make the title game ahead of comparable squads from other conferences. Between Minnesota and Northwestern, I'd say Northwestern would have the better chance because it has a slightly stronger strength of schedule than the Gophers do. And while I've been impressed at what both teams have done, there's little to believe either squad will run the table, especially in the tougher division (Legends). UCLA, which beat Nebraska, already has a home loss to Oregon State, pretty much eliminating the Huskers. Maybe if Notre Dame runs the table and so does Michigan State, there would be a slight, slight chance. But it's hard to see a national title game without featuring a team from the SEC, which has won the past six championships.




Jesse from Lansing writes: Adam -- Coach Kill seems to be a great fit for Minnesota right now. He doesn't reek of that used car salesman attitude (all talk-no walk) that [Tim] Brewster brought to the U. I am really enjoying his matter-of-fact, tough-love gotcha style and the fact that he's more focused on developing his players than the previous regime. Points also for the consistency brought on by his loyal coaching staff. Say Kill is able to build back this program in the next 3-4 years, what are the chances another BCS program lures away him away? I would like to think he's happy here and would stick around for a while. The U administration has been more than generous in providing him the resources he needs to get the job done as well as the time (7-year contract, I believe). Still, Bill Snyder can't stay at Kansas State forever, and being a native Kansan, that would be another opportunity for him to say retire close to home.

Adam Rittenberg: Jerry Kill might not have been Minnesota's first or second choice, but the guy looks like the right choice for a long-suffering Gophers program. He has definitely paid his dues in coaching at the lower rankings, and he doesn't take this opportunity for granted. That said, he obviously has ties to the Kansas area. Ideally, Kill would build up Minnesota's program enough so a move to Kansas State would be more lateral than an obvious step up. I don't get the sense he's a guy who wants to keep moving around every few years, but I doubt you're the only Gophers fan who made the connection to the K-State situation. Kill won't make any move until he feels like he has built up the program sufficiently, which likely is still a few more years away.




Nick from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Hi Adam. I am a die-hard, but very realistic Iowa Fan. Its probably taboo to make comparisons between the last 4 years of Hayden Fry's dismal career and where Kirk's career currently is. The reality is Hayden Fry recruiting significantly diminished after the Tavian Banks/Tim Dwight era which led to more losses. Ferentz had to completely rebuild Iowa. Over the last few years the talent, development has reduced with the losses increasing. Ferentz use to personally coach special teams and it showed. Since he stopped coaching them they have gone down hill ... quickly. I see him now more as a figure-head like Hayden Fry's last years. Do you see these comparisons as well? The angst is growing in Florida among the Iowa fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I can understand your frustration, and I doubt you're the only one making that comparison. While Iowa's program undoubtedly has lost momentum since 2009, I don't know if there has been a huge drop in talent. Iowa never was talented enough to overcome mistakes like running away from an onside kick or committing a dumb personal foul penalty in the closing seconds of a 2-point game. Most of Ferentz's teams have played smart, fundamentally sound football and often played above their collective talent level to win a lot of games. I don't think the 2012 Hawkeyes fit this description. It's fair to wonder if players are being developed as well as they used to in Iowa's program, but aside from a handful of recruiting classes (i.e. 2005), I haven't seen major differences in the types of players Iowa signs. I'm sure the facilities upgrades will help in recruiting, and I also think Ferentz has a lot left as a coach. But it's definitely a rough situation right now in Hawkeye Country.




Charlie from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, Just listened to your "Game of the Week" talk and noticed you said that Le'Veon Bell is the Big Ten's best running back. I think that's a little presumptuous to proclaim this early in the season. Based on a larger time scale (last year) and his performance in limited time this year, I'd still take Rex Burkhead. Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to pull out the Brian Bennett card and base everything you think, do, and say on "body of work." But, this isn't directly about body of work, it's who you think is best based on all past performances and projected future performances. Although Bell will unquestionably, unless he gets hurt, finish the year with more yards than Burkhead, don't you think Burkhead deserves just as much mention for the Big Ten's best running back?

Adam Rittenberg: Charlie, my comment pertained strictly to this season. No one would argue -- aside from a few Northwestern fans -- that Bell has been the Big Ten's best running back this season. We've barely seen Burkhead, and he could turn out to be the league's top back, but he hasn't been to date this season because of the knee injury. Burkhead's overall career has been more impressive than Bell's, but I think Bell has closed the gap -- more because of what he has done lately, not because of any shortcomings with Rex's game. I will say this: Le'Veon Bell projects better to the NFL than any back in the Big Ten, including Burkhead and Montee Ball. If he keeps this up, he could be a potential first-round pick in next year's draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season.




Dave from Denver writes: Does Schlabach get paid by the SEC too?

Adam Rittenberg: Only in joy.
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Mississippi State has confirmed an ongoing NCAA investigation into a "potential recruiting irregularity" and plans to cooperate fully.

ESPN's Joe Schad reported on Thursday that wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando suddenly resigned on Sunday because of the investigation related to his recruitment of at least one player on the Bulldogs' roster.

"That's been going on for the last several months," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said following Thursday's practice. "I'm not able to comment on any of that."

According to Schad's report, freshman defensive back Will Redmond was the subject of an NCAA interview that his high school coach, Marcus Wimberly, gave. However, Mullen later criticized the report and said Redmond has been practicing with the team.

Former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, who was fired from Minnesota in 2010, was hired by Mississippi State to replace Mirando.

Mulllen said on Thursday that he didn't think the NCAA investigation would cause any sort of distraction for his team.

Knile Davis set for contact: The moment many Arkansas fans have been waiting for is coming. Interim coach John L. Smith said that running back Knile Davis will finally take contact during the Razorbacks' mock game Friday night.

Friday will mark the first time Davis has gone through contact since he broke his left ankle during preseason practice last year.

Smith and his staff have been very cautious with Davis, but the redshirt junior running back has insisted for a while now that he's been 100 percent.

Smith told reporters that his plan wasn't to put Davis through contact until Arkansas' opener against Jacksonville State on Sept. 1. However, Davis resisted and Smith gave in.

It's unknown how many snaps Davis will take, but if the coaches see enough from Davis early, you better believe they'll yank him out as fast as they can. They don't want to push him too much.

We'll soon find out just how ready Davis' football legs are.

Shaw has back spasms: South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw missed most of the Gamecocks' practice because of back spasms. Coach Steve Spurrier said during his radio show on Thursday that Shaw's back made it tough for him to move during practice, so the coaches sent him in for treatment.

With the Gamecocks off until Saturday, the hope is that Shaw's back will heal some. It's unknown if this is serious, but with the season opener against Vanderbilt about a week away, South Carolina's staff will no doubt monitor Shaw and be careful with him in practice between now and then. Shaw has done so well since the spring that there isn't much reason to push him this close to the season.

There isn't much experience at all behind Shaw, so losing Shaw would be a major blow to the Gamecocks' offense.
You've probably heard about Ra'Shede Hageman, even if you don't remember him from Minnesota games.

Even those who follow Gophers football from the periphery have heard Hageman's name mentioned in recent years. Former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster raved about him. He's received more ink in the local papers than most Gophers not named MarQueis Gray.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe play of Ra'Shede Hageman has helped Minnesota's undefeated start to the season.
And yet Hageman's career numbers are rather pedestrian: 18 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, one forced fumble, 20 games. He has played three positions for Minnesota -- tight end, defensive end and now defensive tackle -- but hasn't made a major impact at any of them.

So why does he receive so much attention? Well, just look at him.

He's 6-foot-6 and 301 pounds. He's lean, strong and quick. He has a 36-inch vertical leap and was recruited for basketball coming out of Minneapolis' Washburn High School.

Some athletes inspire hyperbole because of what they do between the lines. Hageman simply has to show up.

"I'm not really the normal human being," Hageman told ESPN.com. "I know what God gave me, and I want to use my talents to the best of my ability."

Hageman's challenge this season is maximizing his natural gifts. If successful, he'll give the Gophers' defensive line a much-needed spark. If successful, he'll no longer be a guy who simply looks good in a uniform.

"Talent can only go so far," he said. "At the D-1 level, you have to have technique. Technique goes farther than talent any day, so I'm trying to combine those two and have my own swag, and still use my strength and my ability."

Hageman first realized his potential in high school. No matter the sport, he was the biggest and strongest one out there.

He earned all-state honors as a tight end and recorded a double-double in the state basketball championship, lifting Washburn to a Class 3A title in 2009.

"I stood over everybody, and I was athletic," he recalled. "They told me I'm not a regular human being."

Yet among other abnormal humans on a Big Ten football field, Hageman has been less noticeable to this point. He redshirted the 2009 season and switched from tight end to defensive end. He appeared in eight games as a reserve in 2010, recording five tackles, and followed it up with 13 tackles last fall.

Although Gopher fans are still waiting for Hageman to break out, he raised hope in the 2011 finale against Illinois, recording two sacks and a forced fumble.

"I just got my confidence up, sack after sack," he said. "After the game, I know we had winter workouts, summer workouts, and I was just hungry to get here, where I am right now."

Minnesota hopes Hageman blossoms this fall for a line that has been ineffective for the past three seasons. He has spent much of the offseason working on lowering his pad level, a challenge for a 6-6 defensive tackle. He tends to pop up too soon to find the ball, but understands the need to maintain good leverage and, at times, fill a space so others can make big plays.

While aware of what the outside world expects, Hageman needs no extra motivation.

"There's always pressure, but you have to live with it," he said. "I'm my worst critic. If I feel like I didn’t perform, I get on myself. I’m definitely seeing improvement, and I feed off that."
The Big Ten used to be the league of longevity. Good coaches almost always stuck around, often for more than a decade. No wonder the league's most famous bosses went by first names only: Woody, Bo, Joe, Hayden.

The longevity label didn't only apply in 1970 or 1980. Simply go back to December 2006.

At that point, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz was finishing up his eighth season in the job, making him the Big Ten's fifth-longest-tenured coach. Penn State's Joe Paterno, Michigan's Lloyd Carr, Purdue's Joe Tiller and Minnesota's Glen Mason all had been in their jobs longer than Ferentz.

As the 2012 season beckons, Ferentz is the longest-tenured coach in the league. By far. The second-longest tenured? Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. Bielema, a 42-year-old newlywed, and Fitzgerald, who turned 37 in December, both landed their first head-coaching positions before the 2006 season.

Since January 2007, the Big Ten has said goodbye to 11 head coaches, including three -- Paterno, Carr and Ohio State's Jim Tressel -- who won national championships. Michigan, which has had six head coaches serve for 10 or more years, has made two changes during the span. So has Ohio State.

Several factors play into the league’s historic turnover at the top. Carr and Tiller retired, in part because of their teams' performances. Minnesota got fed up with Mason's middling results and then took a bigger step backward with Tim Brewster before firing him midway through the 2010 season. Indiana and Illinois made understandable changes after subpar results on the field.

The most shocking changes stemmed from scandal and involved two men with solid reputations: Tressel and Paterno. Tressel had led Ohio State to six consecutive Big Ten titles, seven consecutive wins against Michigan and back-to-back BCS bowl wins before being pink-slipped for knowingly playing ineligible players and not coming forward about NCAA violations. Paterno guided Penn State to a 9-1 mark before being fired by the school's trustees days after the child sex abuse scandal broke.

After relative quiet in 2008 and 2009, the Big Ten has had three head-coaching changes in each of the past two offseasons.

Will longevity ever become a Big Ten hallmark again? There won't be another like Paterno, but several coaches could stay in their positions for a while. Ferentz has turned down multiple opportunities in the NFL to remain with Iowa, which pays him handsomely. He could easily finish his career in Iowa City. The Iowa job is somewhat of a novelty in today’s college football, as only two men (Ferentz and Hayden Fry) have led the Hawkeyes since 1979.

Brady Hoke openly admits Michigan is his dream job. He'll be in Ann Arbor as long as they'll have him.

Mark Dantonio also finds himself in a stable situation at Michigan State, which has upgraded its program in recent years. It's not a stretch to see Dantonio finish his career in East Lansing.

Bielema and Fitzgerald also find themselves in good situations. Although Fitzgerald's name often surfaces for other jobs, he has deep roots at Northwestern in the Chicago area and intends to stay with the Wildcats for many years. Bielema played for Iowa but finds himself in a great situation at Wisconsin, and his recent success suggests he'll be in Madison for the long haul.

Bo Pelini several times has shot down rumors of his departure from Nebraska. Although Pelini faces pressure to take the Huskers to the next level, Nebraska had a great track record of stability with Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne -- and paid the price for diverting from it.

It’s too soon to tell if coaches like Danny Hope, Tim Beckman, Jerry Kill, Kevin Wilson and Bill O’Brien are keepers.

The Big Ten's most intriguing debate about longevity concerns its highest-paid and most successful coach -- Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Although Meyer owns two national championships and has roots in Ohio, he also has hopped around and had a health scare in 2009. While Buckeyes fans celebrated Meyer's arrival, many also did so with the understanding he might not be in the job that long.

Perhaps in 2020 the Big Ten will be the league of Captain Kirk, BB, Fitz, Coach D, Brady, Bo and Urban.

More than likely, we'll be playing the name game all over again.
As part of ESPN.com's Hate Week, we asked you on Tuesday to vote for the most hated coach of all time in the Big Ten.

Now to wrap up Hate Week -- and we promise it's only going to be love from now on in this space (ahem) -- here are some of your comments on that topic. Let's conclude the Haters' Ball with a bang.

Philip from Iowa writes: No question it's Jim Tressel. First, he wins a lot of Big Ten Championships so naturally everyone else hates him for that. Second, he lost twice in a row in the National Championship, embarrassing the conference on the national stage -- and it hasn't yet been rebuilt. To make matters worse, the 2 games were 1 where OSU was the overwhelming favorite (against FL) and the other was to a 2 loss team (LSU)! Finally, there is the Terrell Pryor saga that happens while Tressel puts out a book called "The Winners Manual for the Game of Life" There is no contest, every school in the Big Ten, including many OSU alums and fans, hate Jim Tressel. Not many coaches can manage that.

Bert from Portland, Ore., writes: Most hated Big Ten Coach.Bo Schembechler. I attended Northwestern during 1975-79 and the football program won five games during that time (with an infamous 0-0 tie agaisnt Illinois). Woody Hayes would bring his team to town and in the post-game conference at least say that Northwestern played hard. Schembechler would complain that Northwestern did not belong in the Big Ten and that Michigan did not make enough money when it played in Evanston. He was a jerk of the worst kind. I remember watching the Homecoming game in 1978 when, during a rout, Northwestern managed to score a touchdown on a trick play embodiment of a fake punt fairly late in the game. Schembechler started screaming at his players and looked like he was on the verge of having a heart attack. The Northwestern fans started chanting "Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!" In fact, Schembechler was probably the only man in the world who could make me root for USC in the Rose Bowl (which beat Michigan that season). Woody could be gracious in victory and even humble in own way. Schembechler could accomplish neither.

Logan D. from Saginaw, Mich., writes: The most hated coach in the B1G, or who should be the most hated coach, is without a doubt Bret Bielema. The guy just radiates egotism. All you need to do is type his name into Google followed by "is" and you will know exactly what he's like from the suggested words. As a Michigan State fan, I'm not sure if I have ever been angrier with a coach than I was at the end of last year's Big Ten Championship game. After Wisconsin's punter made his Oscar-worthy dive to seal the game, I don't know if I've ever seen a coach as outwardly exuberant as Bret was in that moment. You would have thought his team just scored a touchdown on the most miraculous play in history. I don't know another coach that would be as excited over seeing a yellow flag in the backfield. Plus, not that the guy is in need of an ego-boost whatsoever, but what compels you to put up 70 on Austin Peay and 83 on Indiana? We get it. You can score a lot of points against bad teams.

Brad W. from Philadelphia writes: Most hated coach? Hayden Fry. Unsportsmanlike, completely ungracious, score-runner-upper, never giving the opposition any credit, moronic 3rd-grade stuff like the pink locker room ... just an unpleasant, vicious old man. Could never beat his butt often enough. Runners-up: Earle Bruce, Mike White.

Rich H. from Wayne, N.J., writes: Most hated coach ever? Woody Hayes without a doubt. Surly, unprofessional, a hick, temper tantrums and unpolished. Dial up an automatic loss in almost every bowl game he coached. Track record of more NFL busts than any program sans Nebraska. Unimaginative offense; never changed with the times either. Never scheduled a tough out of conference game regular season without a 2-1/3-1 deal. His famous bout with Ref Jerry Markbreit on the sideline circa 1971? Should have been fired right then and there. Of course 1978 vs Clemson and Mr. Baumann will live in infamy and is the most embarrassing complete breakdown of any major head-coach EVER and televised on national TV to boot. Good thing he wasn't around in today's day and age - that dooming episode would have gone virile in 20 seconds. Yet alums adore this basic jackwagon, go figure. Did I mention his graduation rate? Less than 70%. Should I continue? Nah, jury rests...

Paul from Johnstown, Pa., writes: Love the Hate! I nominate two coaches, one current and one former. First, Bret Bielema...a totally spineless, classless jerk. Runs up the score. Goes for 2 late in the 4th Qtr with games in hand. Whines, whines, whines, whines like a 5 year old. Loses to TCU with a completely loaded team. Makes tacky comments about how great it is to be a Badger fan when questioned about the situations at PSU, OSU and UM. Sprints across the field like a tool to shake hands quickly with opposing coach in total disprespectful fashion .Second, Bo Scumbechler ... yes, "Scumbechler." As a PSU fan, I have an obligation to hate this man for the lack of class he showed when PSU was brought into the B1G. His comments and efforts to exclude PSU and/or to make PSU's admission into the conference unwelcoming still boils my blood.

Danny from Davenport, Iowa, writes: Adam, as a Hawkeye fan it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep from hating Pat Fitzgerald. He may not be on the radar much outside of Iowa City and his body of work may leave some to question this hatred for PF. But, look at this from an Iowa fan standpoint. PF is a whiner and a coward. Take last year, for instance. PF hid behind one of his own players while that player took heat for admitting to the world that Pat Fitz hated Iowa with a passion. One cannot help but think that this is hostility boiling over from the injury incurred during a game when PF was still in pads. Grow up and get over it. Then, there was PFs whole twitter controversy, or should I say the "director of football operations" twitter controversy while he was "accidentally" logged into PFs account. SURE, man up.

Mark from Oklahoma City writes: John Cooper. I was born in Ohio in 1986. Growing up and watching the pain and anguish that John Cooper put on my father's face Saturday afternoons in late November during the 90s was enough to make me despise him. Interestingly, it's during the same period I grew to despise Lloyd Carr. I hated him more at one point until I went to Ohio State during the Jimmy T era which he spent a good amount of time of beating the same Lloyd Carr into "retirement" which cemented Cooper as my most hated coach. Go back to Arizona State, take Gene Smith with you. Give me a coach from Ohio.

Shawn from Minneapolis writes: You gotta admire talent, so I'm not picking on anyone who won, not even those [REDACTED] coaches from Michigan. Most hated B1G coach: Tim Brewster, with a pathetic record of (*googles* ... cripes it didn't feel like that many wins) 15-30 in FOUR LONG YEARS. Long live Coach Kill!

Zach from Lincoln, Neb., writes: In regards to your most hated coach ever...Can the worst coach not have ever coached in the B1G? I think universally, Bill Callahan (excuse my french) is the dirtiest word that can be spoken in 'sker country.

Joe P. from Chicago writes: My most hated Big Ten coach ever is John L. Smith. As a Spartan fan, it was bad enough getting regularly slaughtered by our rivals (and inferior programs like Indiana), but he made our program into a punchline. God Bless Dantonio.

Chris from Wisconsin writes: As soon as Urban Meyer entered the B1G he instantly became the most hated coach of all time. As a Badger fan, I didn't even really hate any coaches in the Big Ten over the years but wow do I hate Urban Meyer and I can't even figure out what it is. I can't stand the guy and he has yet to coach a game at OSU hoping Bielema runs up the score on him for many years to come "and for Urban many is about 3 which is how long I expect him to stay at OSU.

Robert V. from West Bloomfield, Meechigan, writes: Most Hated Big Ten Coach:Wayne Woodrow Hayes.

Travis form Midland, Mich., writes: As a Michigan fan, I would have to say I hate Jim Tressel the most. I was not alive during the 10-year war between Woody and Bo, so I don't hate Woody as much as some other Michigan fans. The biggest reason I hate Tressel the most would be the violations. Before "tattoogate" broke, I hated him, but I respected him for running an honest program. After the NCAA violations, I hated him and I lost most of my respect for him. Personally (and this might be my Michigan fan bias), I believe Ohio State went beyond just the tattoos. I believe that there were rule infractions as early as Maurice Clarett. To sum it up, I hate Jim Tressel because, 1. He coached at Ohio State, 2. He was extremely successful against Michigan, 3. He turned his back to NCAA violations and is labeled a cheater in my mind because of this. My second least favorite coach might just be Jerry Sandusky, for obvious reasons.

John from New Hampshire writes: Easy question: Lloyd Carr hands down without a doubt. His sideline ranting made it even easier to just despise Meeechigan. His BS screaming for more time on the clock won him a miracle game about five years ago when Penn State was in the Big House and winning till Lloyd's crying got the refs to make a historically insipient call, giving undue time on the clock and giving those hideously clad (...that bright yellow....) chumps the game - and costing my beloved Nittany Lions perhaps a perfect season.
Most Big Ten coaches label their jobs with a capital D for destination. When a head coach arrives on a Big Ten campus, he usually isn't looking for his next stop. Big Ten fans take pride in this.

The league has been largely immune from the wandering-eye coaches who leave programs at inopportune times for the next big thing. Even the Big Ten programs that could be classified as stepping stones haven't been left in the lurch very often in recent years. While it's not shocking that a Big Ten coach hasn't jumped to a different college job, it's a bit of a surprise that the NFL hasn't plucked one away.

[+] EnlargeTressel
Icon SMIJim Tressel resigned after his involvement in the Ohio State tattoo/memorabilia scandal.
The last Big Ten coach to voluntarily leave his team at a less-than ideal time was Nick Saban, who ditched Michigan State for LSU on Nov. 30, 1999. Saban had led the Spartans to a 9-2 record, a No. 10 national ranking and berth in the Florida Citrus Bowl. Although then-Michigan State athletic director Clarence Underwood praised Saban for putting the program "back on solid ground," Saban's departure put the school in a tough situation. Less than a week after Saban's departure, Michigan State promoted longtime assistant Bobby Williams to head coach, a decision that didn't turn out well.

After flirting with several bigger-name programs during his time at Northwestern, Gary Barnett finally left to take the Colorado job on Jan. 20, 1999, just weeks before national signing day. Although Northwestern immediately named Barnett's replacement, Randy Walker, the drawn-out saga wasn't much fun, given what Barnett had meant to the school.

But since Saban and Barnett, the Big Ten hasn't had any coaches voluntarily leave at bad times. There have been some midseason firings (Tim Brewster at Minnesota, Williams at Michigan State) and some late firings (Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Glen Mason at Minnesota), but in those cases the schools, not the coaches, made decisions that put themselves in tough situations.

The most recent instances of coaches leaving Big Ten programs in tough spots involved two men who certainly didn't walk away on their own terms.

After months of scrutiny stemming from the tattoo/memorabilia scandal and his attempted cover-up, Jim Tressel resigned his post as Ohio State's coach on Memorial Day of 2011. Tressel stepped down just three months before the season and with spring practice all wrapped up. Ohio State knew it would be without Tressel for the first five games of the 2011 season, but his resignation under pressure left the program scrambling.

The school named 37-year-old assistant Luke Fickell, who had never been a head coach before, to the top job. After six consecutive seasons of Big Ten titles (won or shared), Ohio State went 6-7 under Fickell last fall, its first losing season since 1988 and its first seven-loss season since 1897. Ouch.

But the ugliest and most untimely departure was yet to come. Five days after former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges, Penn State's board of trustees voted to fire longtime coach Joe Paterno. The date: Nov. 9. Penn State was 8-1 at the time, and 11 days earlier Paterno had recorded his 409th coaching victory, moving him past Eddie Robinson for the most wins in college football history. Hours before the board's decision, Paterno had announced he would retire following the season, his 46th as head coach. Instead, he was informed via telephone that his tenure was over, which triggered a backlash from Penn State students and fans.

The school promoted longtime assistant Tom Bradley to interim head coach. Bradley led the team during a hellish eight weeks that featured, among other things: a 1-3 record that knocked Penn State out of the Big Ten race; snubs by several bowl games who didn't want to deal with a p.r. nightmare; the announcement that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer; a locker-room fight that left starting quarterback Matthew McGloin concussed and unable to play in the bowl; and a seemingly rudderless coaching search that took too long and put Bradley in an awkward situation.

In six months, two iconic Big Ten programs lost incredibly successful coaches under extremely messy circumstances.

A Big Ten coach bolting for an NFL job suddenly doesn't sound so bad.
Every good conference boasts some coaching villains, and the Big Ten has several men who fill the role. No one will confuse the Big Ten with the SEC, where all 12 coaches have voodoo dolls of one other and dart boards with their opponents' heads as the bull's-eyes. But let's not forget the Big Ten produced Woody and Bo, two men who certainly played the villain when they set foot on opposing soil. The Big Ten may never see Woody versus Bo, Part II, but you get 12 Type A personalities competing for championships in a high-stakes sport, and it's going to get heated.

Last month, we asked you to weigh in on the most disliked Big Ten coach. Not surprisingly, the three highest vote-getters also earned our nod for their villainous traits. Remember, this is all in fun, and it's important to note that it's hard to be a coaching villain if you don't win a lot of games or tick off multiple fan bases.

Let's take a look.

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (six seasons, 60-19 overall and at Wisconsin)

Any coach who plays college ball, has his team's logo tattooed on his leg, and then ends up coaching a major rival is predisposed to be a villain. Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman, still sports the Tigerhawk stamp on his leg, but he's very much a Badger these days. While Bielema might not be a favorite son in Iowa, he has ticked off others around the league a little more.

In 2010, Bielema ignited a flap with Minnesota when he called for a 2-point conversion attempt with Wisconsin ahead by 25 points in the fourth quarter. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster confronted Bielema after the game and later said Bielema made "a poor decision for a head football coach." Bielema claimed he was following the coaches' card of when to go for two or not, but given tension with Brewster and the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, few bought his explanation. The Wisconsin coach didn't help his rep a few weeks later when the Badgers' record-setting offense put up 83 points against Indiana, although the sportsmanship complaints seemed hollow as Indiana totally packed it in that day.

Then came national signing day in February, when Bielema at a news conference referred to "illegal" recruiting tactics by new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Many incorrectly interpreted Bielema's comments as sour grapes about losing a recruit (Kyle Dodson) to Meyer, but Bielema didn't publicly specify what he meant or why he contacted Meyer to discuss the situation. The allegations didn't sit well with Meyer or Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, although the situation put to rest the ridiculous belief about a "gentleman's agreement" among Big Ten coaches.

Bielema is relatively young, highly successful and never short on confidence. He's very media savvy and knows how to get his message across. He may fill the villain role for several fan bases, but he's the one going to Pasadena every year.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State (first season, 104-23 overall in 10 seasons)

Meyer hasn't coached a single game as Ohio State's head man, but he still received the most votes as the league's most disliked coach. Unlike the others in the Big Ten villain mix, Meyer sparks ire in other parts of the country, particularly in a little place they call Gator Country.

He left Florida after the 2010 season -- after nearly stepping away the previous year -- citing health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family. Some saw him taking the Ohio State job, undoubtedly another pressure cooker, just a year after leaving Florida, as disingenuous. More Florida fallout arrived this spring in a Sporting News story that showed Meyer as the overseer and enabler of a mess in Gainesville.

Meyer's Big Ten villainy stems mostly from his immediate success on the recruiting trail after being hired in late November. In two months he put together the Big Ten's top-rated recruiting class, which included several players who had flipped from other programs to the Buckeyes. His surge drew comments from Bielema and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and the perception that Meyer has rocked the boat in the Big Ten remains very much alive.

Although Meyer and Michigan coach Brady Hoke have been cordial to this point -- they have the same agent, Trace Armstrong -- it's only a matter of time before things get spicy. Ohio State set off a mini blaze by displaying a sign in the football complex comparing its players' academic majors with those of Michigan's.

Buckle up.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (five seasons, 44-22 at MSU, 62-39 in eight seasons overall)

The seemingly permanent scowl. The deep, borderline monotone voice. The willingness to stick up for players who make mistakes and fuel rivalries. In many ways, Dantonio looks and sounds more like a villain than any of his Big Ten coaching brethren. Warm and fuzzy he is not, and while he has a unique sense of humor and can be charming, he comes off serious, intense and, some would say, confrontational.

Dantonio has made some notable statements about archrival Michigan in his five seasons in East Lansing. Who can forget his "pride comes before the fall" response to Mike Hart after the 2007 Michigan State-Michigan game? After last season's personal-foul fest against Michigan, a game Michigan State won 28-14, Dantonio drew criticism for not suspending defensive end William Gholston, who had punched a Wolverines player and twisted the helmet of another (the Big Ten later suspended Gholston for a game). In January, he interrupted Michigan assistant Jeff Hecklinski during a presentation to state high school coaches. And this spring, he set off some fireworks by telling Brian Bennett, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"

Some Michigan fans still dismiss Michigan State as not a real rival, but Dantonio has certainly gotten under the skin of Wolverines backers, especially because he keeps beating the Maize and Blue.

Dantonio also was looped into the Meyer/Bielema flap in February, although his general comments about recruiting were misinterpreted by a reporter.

The hyper intense Dantonio has some villain in him. And if he keeps winning at Michigan State, the image will continue to grow.
The haters had their fun on Monday, but it's time to feel the love again in the Big Ten. Sure, this might not seem like the league of love lately, especially after the last recruiting cycle, but Valentine's Day will make it all better (riiight).

Fortunately for you, we intercepted a few of the Valentine's missives being sent around the Big Ten.

Check 'em out ...

To: Bret Bielema
From: Urban Meyer

Bret, we got off to a bad start, but you'll grow to love me. Maybe even my recruiting methods, too. Remember what Ohio State fans thought of me in January 2007? Now, I'm king of Columbus! I've already forgiven you for your poor choice of words (this card, by the way, was sent legally through U.S. mail). I'll be sure to send you weekly updates on Kyle Dodson. Only 277 days until we meet in Madison. Save me a brat! ... Toodles

To: Urban Meyer
From: Bret Bielema

When leading by 27 ... go for two! When leading by 36 ... go for two!

To: Urban Meyer
From: Bret Bielema

Urban, sorry about the last card. Meant to send it to Tim Brewster. My bad.

To: Brady Hoke
From: Michigan fans

Gotta admit, we were a little concerned about your losing record. And the fact you weren't named Jim Harbaugh. But you were a Michigan man, dammit, unlike that last schlub. Plus, you actually cared about defense (Mattison rules!). Thanks for making us proud again. Now beat Ohio State every year.

To: College football fans
From: Jim Delany and Big Ten athletic directors

We're giving you your stinking playoff -- and this card. Happy?

To: Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan
From: Jim Delany

I know you guys took some heat for selecting Virginia Tech, but it was a great call. People rag on the Big Ten, but think how bad it'd be if there weren't these ACC teams completely incapable of winning BCS bowls. You da man! Any time you want to pair us against the ACC, don't hesitate!

To: Pat Narduzzi
From: Mark Dantonio

Thanks for staying. Don't worry, there's a check included. Let's give 'em 840 minutes of unnecessary roughness this year!

To: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
From: Denard Robinson

Who knew one team could make one player look so awesome? I love you guys! See ya in September!

To: Nebraska fans
From: Bo Pelini

I know you're not happy about the meltdowns against Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina. Or the reports linking me to other jobs. Or some of the assistant coach hires. Or the fact we had more walk-ons than scholarship players in the last recruiting class. But we can take the next step and make you proud. I've matured as a coach. I'm a little calmer and a little more self-aware. I might put some Gandhi quotes around the complex. Let's get off the roller coaster and start riding the wave of enlightenment. GBR! Om.


To: The end zone
From: Montee Ball

Had so much fun visiting this past season, I'll be back for more!

To: Matthew McGloin
From: Curtis Drake

The past is the past, Matty. Let's go knock out the other teams in 2012!

To: Iowa's running backs
From: Kirk Ferentz

Thanks for sticking around, guys. Some of the others must have gotten a bit confused. Told them to run to the end zone, not the nearest Greyhound station.

To: Denard Robinson and Taylor Lewan
From: William Gholston

Can't wait to throw my arms around you guys again this season. Really, really looking forward to Oct. 20.

To: Floyd of Rosedale
From: Minnesota fans

We love makin' bacon with you. Please stay with us forever.

To: NCAA infractions committee
From: Gene Smith

I thought love meant never having to say you're sorry. I guess you didn't think my attempt of asking for your forgiveness was enough. But it's OK. I've moved on and ended up in a much healthier relationship. Let's never fight again.


To: Indiana Hoosiers
From: Ron Zook

When up by seven, go for two! C'mon, you know you'll miss me.
There will be new leadership in Minnesota's athletic department at the start of the 2012-13 sports season as Joel Maturi announced Thursday he will retire June 30.

Maturi's retirement isn't a major surprise, as many projected the 67-year-old to step down in the next year or so. Minnesota president Eric Kaler said Thursday that Maturi will work with him on fundraising and special projects following his retirement. Kaler said he and Maturi reached a mutual decision that Maturi would step down at the end of June.

Kaler said Minnesota will look both nationally an internally for Maturi's replacement, which Kaler expects to have in place by July 1.

How should Maturi's tenure as Minnesota's AD be viewed? The athletic program had no major scandals under his watch, which hadn't been the case in previous decades. He also helped bring football back to campus with the construction of TCF Bank Stadium, one of the best new facilities in college football. Maturi also made a splash with the hiring of men's basketball coach Tubby Smith in 2007.

But if ADs are ultimately judged by the success of their high-profile programs, Maturi fell short. His hiring of football coach Tim Brewster turned out very badly, and the prolonged search for Brewster's successor last year didn't look good, either. Maturi made some candid, eyebrow-raising comments after firing Brewster and during the process of hiring Jerry Kill.

From the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press:
Last season, his football team, his men's and women's basketball teams, and his men's hockey team all failed to make a national postseason appearance. The last time all four teams did not make a bowl or NCAA tournament was the 1997-98 season. The last time there was no bowl, NCAA tournament or NIT or WNIT appearance was the 1983-84 season.

Maturi also was criticized for buyouts paid to fired coaches like Brewster, former football coach Glen Mason and former basketball coach Dan Monson.

He seemed to have respect throughout Big Ten circles, and he was always forthright in our interactions.

"I know the job," Maturi said Thursday. "Many base my success on wins and losses. I'm not worried about Joel Maturi's legacy. I leave ... feeling good."

Maturi's departure doesn't significantly impact Kill, because it always seemed likely Maturi would step down before any decision on Kill's future would be made. Kill took the job knowing he'd likely have a new boss in the near future.

Then again, new athletic directors usually like to have their guys in place, and Kill will have to prove himself to Maturi's successor. It'll be interesting to see where Minnesota goes with the hire.
Urban Meyer didn't hold back at his introductory news conference Monday at Ohio State.

"I'm going to go about and try to assemble the best coaching staff in college football," Meyer said.

Ohio State is supporting its new coach on the endeavor.

So how is the process going? Let's take a look at what we know and what could be happening soon with Meyer's staff at Ohio State.
  • Current Buckeyes head coach Luke Fickell is the only assistant Ohio State has officially confirmed to be joining Meyer's staff. Meyer didn't specify Fickell's role but said it would be "a significant title and significant position." It's a strong possibility Fickell's title includes assistant head coach. He also could be named a co-defensive coordinator, the role he shared with Jim Heacock on Jim Tressel's staff.
  • While Fickell could be a candidate for the sole defensive coordinator role, Meyer is assessing candidates and could lure in a big fish in Mike Stoops, the former Arizona head coach. Stoops confirmed he has met with Meyer but didn't say whether he has been offered a position. No one will be surprised if Stoops is named Ohio State's next defensive coordinator, a position he held at Oklahoma for five years under his brother, Bob. Stoops would be a big-name addition for Meyer, who likely will add several.
  • Multiple outlets are reporting that Meyer will retain Stan Drayton, in his first year as Ohio State's receivers coach. Drayton worked for Meyer at Florida and replaced Darrell Hazell in Columbus. This makes a lot of sense, as Drayton is a strong recruiter with ties to Ohio and to Florida. Drayton also can coach running backs.
  • It will be interesting to see where Meyer looks for an offensive coordinator. One name being mentioned quite a bit is LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa, an Ohio native who served as Meyer's offensive line coach at Bowling Green. Studrawa in July replaced Steve Kragthorpe, who had to step down after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
  • Other current Buckeyes assistants who could remain on staff include cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel. If Vrabel stays, it will be interesting to see which position Fickell coaches as he used to oversee the linebackers. Defensive line seems a likely spot.
  • Former Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster reportedly has been offered a position on Meyer's staff, as well as one at Arizona with new boss Rich Rodriguez. While Brewster didn't work out as a head coach in Minneapolis, he's one of the nation's top recruiters and could help Ohio State on the trail, particularly in Texas. Brewster has coached tight ends most of his career.
  • Other potential candidates to join Meyer's staff include Notre Dame running backs coach Tim Hinton and Florida linebackers coach/special-teams coordinator D.J. Durkin and strength and conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti.

USC needs defense to improve

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
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In 2008, USC produced one of the all-time great college defenses. It took just two years for the unit to become mediocre-to-bad.

Last fall, the Trojans surrendered 44 plays of 20 or more yards, which ranked 102nd in the nation. By comparison, the 2008 unit yielded just 14, the lowest total over the past three years by six.

So what happened?

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe Trojans hope the second year in Monte Kiffin's defense yields better results.
Well, for one, Pete Carroll, who'd built one of the nation's premier defensive powers, bolted for the Seattle Seahawks. Next: The talent he left behind for new coach Lane Kiffin wasn't nearly as good as it had been from 2002-2008. Then Kiffin, worried about injuries, significantly limited tackling during preseason camp. Finally, it seemed that the Trojans never fully figured out new coordinator Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 scheme, which had been so successful in the NFL.

The result? A unit that surrendered a Pac-10-high 30 TD passes (five more than ninth-place Washington State) and wasn't much better against the run, ranking sixth in the conference (140.5).

But if you're wondering why many still rate the Trojans as the favorites in the Pac-12 South Division and believe they will improve upon their 8-5 finish of a year ago, the defense is a good place to start.

"I feel like we know what we're doing a little bit better as far as it being the second year in the system," Lane Kiffin said. "And in scrimmage formats, we're tackling better."

That will be put to its first test Saturday when Minnesota comes calling to the Coliseum.

The Trojans welcome back seven starters from last year's unit. They look strong at end with Nick Perry, Devon Kennard and Wes Horton. And few teams boast a better safety-cornerback combination than All-American T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. But there are questions at linebacker, where they will be young around injury-prone Chris Galippo.

The Golden Gophers shouldn't provide too difficult a test. Coming off a 3-9 season in which Tim Brewster got fired and was replaced by Jerry Kill, who rebuilt Northern Illinois, they are replacing three starters on their offensive line and they don't look like a team that will be throwing the ball well. They are, however, intriguing at quarterback. That's where MarQueis Gray steps in. He's a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior who has been primarily a receiver, though he got behind center in "Wildcat" formations. Passing the ball over the past two years, he's just 8-of-23 for 86 yards with a TD and an interception.

Of course, Kiffin went the "oh, no" route and compared him to former Texas quarterback Vince Young.

"It's very scary for us," he said. "We've got our hands full. This is a big-time challenge for our defense."

USC won at Minnesota 32-21 last year, a victory that was part of a 4-0 start. But the Trojans proved inconsistent on both sides of the ball once conference play began, inspiring some questions of motivation because NCAA sanctions made them ineligible for the postseason. That's an issue again this fall, though it's probably not one in the season-opener, when everyone is fired up to play.

"I don't think the motivation shows up as much early in the year," Kiffin said. "It becomes more of an issue towards the end of the year or if you hit one or two losses in a row there."

Still, with Matt Barkley at quarterback and a strong crew of receivers, the Trojans should at least be a factor in determining other team's postseasons. As for the South Division, that probably hangs on how much the Trojans' defense reverts back to its old ways. Preseason optimism about knowing the scheme better and improved tackling only goes so far.

Said Kiffin: "That all sounds good but it won't mean anything if come Saturday we don't do it when it really counts."

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