Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
5:00
PM ET
I'm your bagman today. Season's less than a week away. Horses like hay, OK?

Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg).

Let's begin ...

I'm your bagman today. Season's less than a week away. Horses like hay, OK? Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg). Let's begin ... Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Michael. The immediate response is to say Michigan State beating Oregon on the road. Oregon is a popular pick to make the playoff. It has a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Marcus Mariota and plays in one of the loudest, craziest, most hostile environments -- at least for the road team -- in college football. A MSU win would be huge both for the Spartans and the Big Ten. But you can't discount the Wisconsin-LSU game for this simple reason: It's against the SEC. The Big Ten's reputation issues stem in large part because of the SEC's success and the Big Ten's inability to beat the SEC in big games. The two leagues are richer and more popular (by far) than the others. So a win against the SEC, in essentially a road game in Houston, would be big for Wisconsin and the Big Ten. I'll ultimately go with Michigan State beating Oregon, but not by much. Both games are huge for the league.


Indiana fan from Indiana writes: Is it fair to say that Tevin Coleman is one of the most explosive backs in the nation? I mean, he was tied for second in most 50-plus-yard runs, tied for first in most 40-yard runs and tied for fourth in most 30-yard runs. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry, which was tied for eighth in the nation. He had 12 TDs. And he only played nine games and had those numbers. The numbers seem to back it up. But where would the Big Ten blog men put him in the nation? Top 10? Top 5? Adam Rittenberg: He's definitely one of the most explosive backs in the nation, Indiana fan, and I would also call him one of the most underrated players in college football. Coleman gets largely overlooked because he plays for Indiana and the Hoosiers have been known more for their passing prowess under coach Kevin Wilson. If he maintains or builds on those numbers and, most importantly, gets through the entire season, he'll get more respect, at least regionally. It will be tough to get noticed nationally, especially in a league loaded with great running backs. Then again, winning changes everything. Coleman is a top 10-15 back nationally. He could easily climb higher this fall.

Adam Rittenberg: To be clear, Justin is referring to Nebraska, not Northwestern. I think the rankings aren't based mainly on a perceived talent differential. Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar talent, and you can make a case the 2014 Huskers will be the more talented team as Wisconsin says goodbye to an exceptional senior class. But Wisconsin has had a slightly better track record than Nebraska in the past 15 years. The Badgers have won league championships and always seem to be in the title mix. Nebraska has been close under Bo Pelini, but can't get past the four-loss thing. The big difference between the teams, regardless of preseason ranking, is the schedule. Nebraska plays a division crossover at Michigan State. Wisconsin misses Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The Badgers also host Nebraska, which also must visit Iowa and a Northwestern team it has struggled to beat the last two years.

Adam Rittenberg: There's virtually no chance he'll be back, Jeff. Melvin Gordon returned this year with the understanding that it would be his last as a Badger. He knows it and the coaches know it. Perhaps a major injury would cause him to return, but even then -- and perhaps because of an injury -- he likely would want to begin his pro career, given the short shelf-life for running backs in the NFL. Gordon wants to lead Wisconsin to the next level and hopes to do it this season. He'll obviously be disappointed if the Badgers don't win the Big Ten and/or make the playoff. But he also has to think about his future, which should begin in the NFL in 2015.  
For years, the job description for Wisconsin quarterbacks has read: game manager, adept at handoffs and play-action, accurate passer in limited opportunities, careful with the ball at all times, mobility not required, playmaking skills optional.

The gig is about to change.

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesTanner McEvoy, who will open the season as the starting QB, has played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Badgers will start Tanner McEvoy in next week's season opener against LSU in Houston, and the choice signals an important shift in offensive philosophy under coach Gary Andersen. The Badgers are asking more from the quarterback position.

McEvoy's athleticism is undeniable. The guy played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season after briefly competing for the top quarterback job in camp. Questions remain about his passing skills, and he has no experience as an FBS quarterback after transferring to Wisconsin from Arizona Western College last winter.

If Wisconsin wanted experience, it would have picked Joel Stave, who has made 19 starts the past two seasons and boasts 3,598 pass yards and 28 touchdown passes. If Wisconsin wanted the status quo at quarterback, Stave would be the obvious choice. And based on most practice reports, picking Stave over McEvoy based on performance would have made sense, too.

But McEvoy was coach Andersen's guy all along. Andersen wants more mobility and playmaking skills from the quarterback spot, and the 6-foot-6, 222-pound McEvoy provides it. Andersen wants more than one ball-carrying option in the backfield along Melvin Gordon or Corey Clement.

Tom Minnick, who coached McEvoy at Arizona Western in 2012, said Andersen had seen what a mobile quarterback could do at Utah State (Chuckie Keeton) and wanted McEvoy for the same reason.

McEvoy must prove himself as a passer, especially with a mostly anonymous receiving corps. He struggled throwing the ball last summer, but showed improvement this spring and in camp.

"He's got a weird throwing motion, but he was very accurate," Minnick said. "He got the ball there, and his arm’s very strong."

Before camp, I was fairly certain McEvoy would be the starter for the LSU game. But Stave's performance seemed to change the narrative, and you wouldn't have blamed the coaches for going with experience against LSU.

But this is about Wisconsin's future on offense, not its past. In McEvoy and dynamic freshman D.J. Gillins, Andersen has made it clear that the days of the statuesque quarterback at Wisconsin are over.

The key for McEvoy is to replicate some of the things his predecessors delivered -- namely limiting turnovers -- while adding a dual-threat element to the offense. His first assignment undoubtedly will be a tough one, and few would be surprised if Stave also sees the field against LSU.

Wisconsin always will be a haven for running backs and offensive linemen, but the quarterbacks should be a bigger factor going forward. McEvoy is the first of the new Badgers quarterbacks, but he won't be the last.
The praise has flooded in from all directions for J.T. Barrett since his rapid ascension to the top of the depth chart at Ohio State.

Tight end Jeff Heuerman hailed the leadership skills of the redshirt freshman. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off Barrett's positive attributes as a passer, starting with his ability to make the right decisions and consistent accuracy that should allow them to pay off for the Buckeyes. Coach Urban Meyer focused on Barrett's potential as a "distributor," likening him to famed Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton in the process.

But there is one more comparison that has popped up during a wild week at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that might offer another clue about how the Buckeyes might look this season without Braxton Miller running the show, one which the coaching staff mentioned to SI.com's Pete Thamel.
Barrett's smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak. "I'll take that," Meyer said with a smile. "I'm a big Chris Leak fan."

If Barrett is Meyer's latest version of Leak, it stands to reason he might also have a need for somebody to fill the role Tim Tebow played in the two-quarterback system that won Florida a national title in 2006. And, look at that, Ohio State has a 6-foot-5, 250-pound battering ram in Cardale Jones already on the roster.

The conversation about Jones has died down considerably since he left spring practice with the backup job ahead of Barrett, but it's not hard to envision how he could still have an impact for the Buckeyes as they put together a game plan for next week's opener against Navy.

For starters, Meyer has proven adept at managing multiple quarterbacks in his spread system in the past. Even a year ago with Miller in the fold, Meyer expressed his desire to find a way to get Guiton more involved and eventually installed a package of plays in the red zone that featured his backup quarterback.

One problem with using them both more often, aside from Miller's athleticism clearly setting him apart, was Meyer's two options behind center had similar skill sets. But that isn't really the case with Barrett and Jones, with the former four inches smaller and relying on an accurate arm, and the latter boasting a powerful-but-inconsistent arm but capable of pounding away at opponents regularly on the ground.

When asked on Wednesday, Meyer didn't rule out playing both quarterbacks as he tries to replace Miller's production, though he didn't provide any insight into how that rotation might work.

But even with Meyer simply saying "sure, yeah," looking at his past and the talent on hand, it's not a stretch to think some sort of quarterback combo could be back in his playbook -- if it isn't already there.
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Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld found himself in a time-share situation at quarterback the past two seasons. No matter how well he performed -- and he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2013 -- Sudfeld never knew exactly when he might start or even play.

Throughout it all, he never complained. He saw a much bigger picture.

“It would be really hard for me, if I had a bad game or something, to get too upset,” Sudfeld said. “I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems.”

Sudfeld’s upbringing ensured that he would never get too wrapped up in himself. He comes from a family of missionaries who actually dare to try and alleviate some of the world’s problems.

His grandfather, Bob Pagett, is a former pastor who along with his wife, Charlene, decided to create a relief organization after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. He never dreamed it would take flight the way it has.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld, Bob Pagett
Courtesy of Matt SudfeldShortly after turning 14, Nate Sudfeld, left, went on a mission to Uganda and Kenya with his grandfather, Bob Pagett, back, and suddenly bad games weren't as bad. "I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems."
That organization, Assist International, now has 19 full-time employees split between its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area and a 25,000 square-foot distribution center outside Sudfeld’s hometown of Modesto, Calif.

Assist International focuses on needs such as providing fresh water, delivering medical supplies and serving orphans in Third World nations. Pagett said the organization has completed projects in more than 60 countries around the world. It has built orphanages and schools in Romania, Uganda and other war-torn or impoverished areas.

Along the way, it also became the family business. Sudfeld’s father, Ralph, will take over as president of the organization next year, while his mother, Michelle, serves as fundraising director. Nate’s older brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development.

Pagett told each of his nine grandchildren that they could go with him on a relief mission when they turned 14. Shortly after he reached that age, Nate Sudfeld went to Uganda and Kenya, meeting renowned missionary Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe along the way. Sudfeld recalled playing soccer with orphans during the trip.

“It’s been a life-changing experience for our grandkids,” Pagett said. “When you grow up in Modesto and all of a sudden you go to Vietnam or Romania, your eyes are wide open and you’re a world person. They’re really into helping the poor and needy around the world, because they’ve been exposed to the world.”

Sudfeld has been itching to go on another mission ever since his first one. He had planned to join his twin brothers Matt and Zach, the latter of whom is a tight end for the New York Jets, on a trip to Uganda this spring. But the itinerary got postponed, and by the time it happened this summer, he was too wrapped up in football preparations.

Sudfeld hopes there will be time after this season to go somewhere on a mission.

“It seems like almost every time I’m on the phone with him he’s saying, ‘When can I go out? When’s the next trip?” Matt Sudfeld said.

For now, though, the Hoosiers take priority, and Sudfeld is the team’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback for the first time. Tre Roberson’s surprising transfer this summer cleared the way for the 6-foot-5 junior who threw 21 touchdown passes in eight starts a year ago.

It’s also the first time that fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson won’t have to juggle quarterbacks. He says Sudfeld has the talent to be "one of the premier players in our league" and that he has definite NFL potential.

That’s what Sudfeld has dreamed of since he was a high school freshman, when he would practice his throwing motion in front of a mirror to make sure he maintained a quick and compact release despite his height. Sudfeld said not having to look over his shoulder this season gives him more confidence, but he’s not settling for just owning the starting job.

“I’m not trying to just be the No. 1 quarterback at Indiana,” he said. “I’m trying to be one of the better players around. If I do that, it will make our whole team better.”

As he was raised to do, Sudfeld sees the bigger picture at play. And football is never all that’s on his mind.

“I’m really glad I was able to get out of my little California bubble at a young age,” he said. “[Relief work] is something I definitely want to be involved in as I get older. There’s nothing like it.”

Best case/Worst case: Big Ten

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
10:30
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Over the past several days, we have presented our best- and worst-case scenarios for every team in the Big Ten.

They weren't predictions but instead a broad (sometimes comically so) look at the potential highs and lows for each club. Now that we've examined each individual team, let's take a look at the best and worst scenarios for the Big Ten as a whole in 2014.

Best case

It's like 2006 all over again.

The Big Ten makes immense strides as a conference and asserts itself once again as a major power in college football. The season gets off to a promising start when Wisconsin beats LSU in Houston in Week 1, establishing the Badgers as a national title contender and dinging the SEC along the way.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon and the Badgers can get the Big Ten off to a bang with a victory over LSU in the season opener.
Week 2 brings a confluence of positive developments. Michigan State scores a key road victory at Oregon to make the Spartans an early College Football Playoff contender. On the same night, Ohio State thrashes Virginia Tech and Michigan beats Notre Dame, the first win in a 3-0 mark against the Irish for the conference.

Nebraska easily handles Miami at home, and Indiana notches an upset on the road at defending SEC East champion Missouri. Meanwhile, new members Rutgers and Maryland sweep their nonconference games, leading to Big Ten fever on the East Coast. Penn State learns in September that its bowl ban has been lifted, and James Franklin leads the Nittany Lions to their first postseason game since the 2011 season.

"GameDay" has no choice but to set up shop for two marquee Midwestern matchups: No. 1 Michigan State hosting No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 8 and 11-0 Wisconsin at 11-0 Iowa on Nov. 22.

Both Michigan State and Ohio State -- the latter of which suffers little dropoff without Braxton Miller -- make the Playoff field and win their semifinal games to set up a rematch for the national title. The Big Ten also does very well in its other bowl games, as Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota all defeat Power 5 conference opponents. Maryland and Rutgers both reach bowls, too, proving naysayers wrong about their ability to compete in their new league. New York City goes gaga for the Scarlet Knights, as Kyle Flood guest hosts for a week on Jimmy Fallon's show. President Obama leads a wave of new Terps fans in Washington.

The SEC fails to place a team in the Playoff, and Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin all leave for NFL jobs after the season. Using the new NCAA autonomy measures, the Big Ten is able to force major recruiting changes that favor its schools.

Global warming and drought in the South and on the West Coast lead to millions moving to the Midwest, as steel mills and auto plants crank back up. The Big Ten plays in two regions and owns the attention of America. Notre Dame asks to join the conference. Jim Delany says thanks, but no thanks.

Worst case

People are already predicting doom and gloom for the Big Ten after Miller's injury. They are not wrong.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio will lead the Spartans into Autzen Stadium in a huge early showdown against Oregon.
The Big Ten is a significant underdog in its two major nonconference matchups, and LSU and Oregon both show why by blowing out Wisconsin and Michigan State, respectively. Ohio State, a different team without Miller, loses to Virginia Tech and is upset by Cincinnati. Nebraska loses at Fresno State and to Miami. Iowa falls to Pitt. Michigan gets snakebitten in South Bend, part of an 0-3 mark for the league vs. Notre Dame.

With so many teams struggling in nonconference play, the Big Ten is basically irrelevant nationally before October. Maryland and Rutgers have rough first years in the league; the Scarlet Knights go 2-9, while Maryland finishes 4-8. Worse, no one on the East Coast cares, as they are swept up by the surprising ACC success of Pitt and Syracuse and a resurgent Notre Dame.

Penn State stays on probation, and depth issues make it a long first season for Franklin. The West Division beats up on each other, and as November rolls around, none of the teams on that side is ranked. The showdown between Michigan State and Ohio State fizzles as they bring a combined five losses into the game and play to a lackluster 10-7 final score.

Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers are all embroiled in heated debates about their head coaches' future. Northwestern is split apart by the union movement after it's revealed that the final vote was an even 50-50 split. The league's highest-rated team in the selection committee's final poll is No. 14.

Three SEC teams make it to the inaugural playoff, with two of them squaring off in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten finishes 0-10 in its bowls, the best of which was the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Autonomy serves to allow only leagues like the SEC and ACC to conspire and change even more rules in their favor, like oversigning. They push through a ban on all official visits when it's not snowing north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Mike Slive is named commissioner of college football.

Another polar vortex grips the upper Midwest, and freezing temperatures continue well into June.

Michigan down, but not out

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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As Michigan's athletic director, Dave Brandon attends many events where Big Ten championship rings are displayed. He sees them on mantles and in plastic cases. He sees them on the fingers of former Wolverines players -- and not just the living ones.

"I've been to funerals of student-athletes who played here decades and decades ago and have rings on their fingers," Brandon said.

But the past five graduating classes of Michigan football players won't be taking Big Ten championship rings to their graves or anywhere else. They don't have any.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsBrady Hoke, now in his fourth season and with a roster full of his own players, has his sights on winning some trophies.
The Wolverines haven't won a league title since 2004, their longest drought since a lull between 1950-64. They're just 39-33 in league play during the span with four losing conference records since 2008. Michigan had winning records in the Big Ten from 1968-2007, a run that included seven unbeaten seasons and 17 with just one loss.

Michigan still holds 42 Big Ten championships, the most in league history, and no program attaches more importance and emotion to that singular achievement. The line from former Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler -- "Those who stay will be champions" -- still echoes throughout the football complex that bears his name.

Coach Brady Hoke, who won three Big Ten championship rings as a Michigan assistant, often says that any Michigan season without a league title cannot be labeled a success. Hoke's first team in 2011 won 11 games and a Sugar Bowl title, but he considered the season a failure because Wisconsin won the Big Ten. The Wolverines haven't even reached the league championship game, launched in 2011, despite being in a different division than Ohio State.

The struggles can be traced, in least in part, to subpar recruiting at the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure, a system overhaul and attrition under Rich Rodriguez, and a roster that, despite Hoke's major recruiting gains, remains very young. Of Michigan's 83 scholarship players, 57 have freshman or sophomore eligibility.

As the years pass, though, the angst builds for a program anxious to bring back old times.

"You can rationalize everything, but Michigan should never go 10 years without a Big Ten title in any sport," Brandon said. "We're Michigan. We have higher expectations than that."

To continue reading, click here.

Paging U-M: Big Ten needs you!

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
9:45
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The announcement on Tuesday that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the season after re-injuring his throwing shoulder should have set off alarm bells at Schembechler Hall. That's right: Michigan must be on high alert.

Consider the reaction to the Miller news: The Big Ten is doomed, fuhgeddabout the playoff .... Well, maybe Michigan State will save the league. ... Or Wisconsin, with that easy schedule. ... Is Iowa a dark horse? ... What about Nebraska?

No one mentioned the Maize and Blue.

If a similar Big Ten calamity had occurred 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 60 years ago, there would be a standard response: Don't worry, there's still Michigan.

Miller's injury underscores the urgency for Michigan to rise. And the Big Ten needs Michigan now more than ever.

"We definitely can and we definitely need to get back up to that level," said Marlin Jackson, a former two-time All-American cornerback at Michigan and a co-captain in 2004, the most recent Wolverines team to win a Big Ten title. "Not only for the sake of Michigan football, but for the sake of the Big Ten Conference."

To continue reading, click here.
Urban Meyer couldn't believe it.

Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.

"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...

"You've got me shocked."

Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.

"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPerhaps in a couple of years, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg will be the quarterback who breaks a 20-year drought for Big Ten passers in the first round of the NFL draft.
Unfortunately, Meyer's standout quarterback, Braxton Miller, won't end the streak this year because of injury. Miller would have led a Big Ten quarterback corps that looks strong but still lacks the star power found in the Pac-12 and elsewhere.

Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.

"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."

To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.

"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."

Point taken.

Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.

But the volume isn't there.

"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."

The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.

"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."

Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.

"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."

So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.

"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.

Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.

But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.

"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."

Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.

Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.

"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.

"He's a rare talent."

A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.

Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

East Division
West Division
Other stuff

Watch: IU brings the slip 'n slide to practice

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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After a long, grueling practice in the searing August heat, few things are more precious to football players than water.

On Wednesday, the Indiana football players got it in spades. Much to the delight of the team, the Hoosiers staff set up a slip 'n slide. And that's when the fun began -- including a sliding appearance from the big man himself, head coach Kevin Wilson.

Pick a word, any word.

That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.

Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio describes his team as 'committed.'
Of the 65 coaches, “hungry” was the most common description. Nine coaches went with it, making a “hungry” team the modern-day equivalent of the “taking it one game at a time” cliché. Four coaches used “unproven,” another four “experienced” and three said “young.” Two coaches each used “redemption,” “committed,” “improved” or “youthful."

In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.

Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.

Big Ten

Illinois’ Tim Beckman: Family
Indiana’s Kevin Wilson: Cusp
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz: Developmental
Maryland’s Randy Edsall: Hungry
Michigan’s Brady Hoke: Together
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio: Committed
Minnesota’s Jerry Kill: Hungry
Nebraska’s Bo Pelini: Exciting
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald: Focused
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer: Fast
Penn State’s James Franklin: Perseverance
Purdue’s Darrell Hazell: Hungry
Rutgers’ Kyle Flood: Hungry
Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen: Youthful
Rob Bolden, Silas Redd, Anthony FeraUSA TODAY Sports, USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesRob Bolden, Silas Redd and Anthony Fera opted to leave PSU in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
Two seasons ago, in the wake of unprecedented sanctions, the football world waited to see what kind of fate would befall the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Could they still win? Could they still recruit? Better yet, just how many players would leave?

One of the biggest ramifications of the sanctions was a penalty that allowed Penn State players to transfer to any other program without sitting out a year. In the end, only nine players transferred that summer.

Penn State fared just fine the past two seasons. But whatever happened to those nine transfers anyway -- and how did they end up faring?

Let's take a look:

QB Rob Bolden

Transferred to: LSU (then Eastern Michigan)

Claim to PSU fame: He became the first true freshman quarterback to start a PSU opener since Shorty Miller in 1912. He later lost the job to walk-on Matt McGloin.

How he’s fared since transferring: LSU moved Bolden to wide receiver, but he did not play a single game for the Tigers. So, last month, he transferred to Eastern Michigan. He’ll be eligible immediately, but he’s no lock for the starting quarterback spot. No starter has yet been named.

Grading the move: D. Transferring was the right move for Bolden; transferring to LSU was not.




WR Justin Brown

Transferred to: Oklahoma

Claim to PSU fame: He was an important part of the passing game in both 2010 and 2011 and was initially projected to be the top PSU wideout in 2012.

How he’s fared since transferring: He did well for the Sooners in 2012, his final season of eligibility, by catching 73 balls for 879 yards and five touchdowns. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the sixth round a year ago, and he has two catches this preseason.

Grading the move: B. It was high-risk, high-reward. He met his goal of being drafted, so it looks as if it paid off.




DT/OG Jamil Pollard

Transferred to: Rutgers

Claim to PSU fame: He was the only true freshman who signed with PSU and headed elsewhere.

How he's fared since transferring: After suffering what was termed a "career-ending injury," Pollard returned to the team just six months later. He was moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard over the offseason, and he’ll be fighting for situational time in 2014.

Grading the move: Incomplete. It’s difficult to rate someone who never played for Penn State. Plus, it’s still pretty early in his career.




OL Ryan Nowicki

Transferred to: Illinois (then Northern Arizona)

Claim to PSU fame: He drew the ire of fans and teammates when he transferred to another Big Ten school. Said cornerback Stephon Morris: “That’s a coward move.”

How he’s fared since transferring: He didn’t play for Illinois in the 2012 season and then decided to move closer to home by transferring to Northern Arizona last June. He played in six games last season, and he’s not expected to start this season.

Grading the move: C. He wasn’t going to see much time at Penn State, so his transfer made sense. But maybe he should’ve just picked Northern Arizona first.




RB Silas Redd

Transferred to: USC

Claim to PSU fame: He was the Nittany Lions' star offensive player after rushing for 1,241 yards as a sophomore. His transfer, at the time, was the biggest blow to the team.

How he’s fared since transferring: Injuries stalked Redd and he never quite lived up to the hype generated in Happy Valley. Through nine games in 2012, when he was at his healthiest, he averaged 81.3 yards a contest while splitting carries. Redd played in just six games in 2013, went undrafted this past May and signed with the Washington Redskins. He’s already fought his way up to No. 4 on the depth chart.

Grading the move: D-. Penn State fifth-stringer Zach Zwinak actually outrushed Redd in 2012 -- 1,000 yards to 905 yards -- so it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Redd wouldn’t have been better off at PSU.




TE Kevin Haplea

Transferred to: Florida State

Claim to PSU fame: He left PSU with six catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.

How he’s fared since transferring: He saw significant time for the Seminoles in 2012 as a run-blocking tight end, and he redshirted last season due to a knee injury. He’s back for one final season, and he’ll be a key backup at the position.

Grading the move: A. He’s seeing more time on the field than he likely would have at Penn State. Plus, he’s on a team that won the national title last season and is the favorite to win it again this season.




K Anthony Fera

Transferred to: Texas

Claim to PSU fame: He was the first Penn State player since Chris Bahr in 1975 to be the starter for field goals, kickoffs and punts.

How he’s fared since transferring: Fera battled with a groin injury in 2012, but he really came on strong when his health improved for 2013. He was a consensus All-American and a Lou Groza Award finalist. He tried out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago but is not yet on the roster.

Grading the move: B+. He likely would’ve done just as well if he stayed at Penn State, but he performed incredibly well at Texas.




S Tim Buckley

Transferred to: NC State

Claim to PSU fame: He was a former walk-on and became the first Penn State player to transfer.

How he’s fared since transferring: He mostly played special teams in 2012, but he competed in all 12 games last season and even registered a start against East Carolina. He finished last season with 25 tackles. He's no starter, but he's also a redshirt junior.

Grading the move: A-. Not bad for a former walk-on. There’s no guarantee he would’ve received as much playing time in Happy Valley.




LB Khairi Fortt

Transferred to: Cal

Claim to PSU fame: He had 33 tackles in 2011, and he was in line to be the top backup in 2012 and a starter in 2013.

How he’s fared since transferring: He sat out the 2012 season due to knee surgery but rebounded in 2013. He was one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award but suffered a season-ending injury in Game 9. He declared early for the NFL draft and was taken in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints. He’s currently listed as the second-team outside linebacker.

Grading the move: C-. Cal won just a single game last season, and Fortt almost certainly would’ve started for the Nittany Lions’ in 2013. At least he’s flying high now as an NFL rookie.

How to replace Miller? Guiton knows

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:30
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The pressure is real, and Kenny Guiton didn't even try to sugarcoat it.

Playing quarterback at Ohio State already comes with high enough expectations. But when a backup has an up-close view of a record-setting, award-winning starter, that pressure to perform has the potential to become an even bigger burden.

The key, at least according to the guy who turned his gig as Braxton Miller's understudy into the role of a lifetime, is to channel all that energy into preparation. It's fine to appreciate Miller's speed, his elusiveness outside of the pocket and the deep touchdown bombs he throws when on the sideline. But if and when a time comes where the roles are reversed, Miller's play can't be on the mind of anybody hoping to pick up where the Buckeyes left off.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and J.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett will be expected to rise above the pressure and lead the Ohio State offense.
It never was for Guiton during his appearances in relief of Miller, and now it's up to J.T. Barrett to fill the shoes of both of those guys as the Buckeyes prepare for Navy on Aug. 30.

"It definitely is more pressure," Guiton, who spent the season playing for the LA Kiss in the Arena Football League, said by phone on Wednesday. "You're backing up a guy who is a Heisman hopeful, a guy that has all the awards and everything, and that's something that you love, you cherish that.

"I felt blessed because I got to go in for a guy that the world looks at as a Heisman guy, a world-class quarterback. There will be pressure, but if you go into the game not thinking about anything else, focused on his offense, his team, his coaching staff, you'll be just fine."

There's nobody more qualified to pass on that advice than Guiton, who made himself a legend at Ohio State by seamlessly taking over the offense when Miller was injured over the last two seasons. Whether it was just to finish off a drive or two or taking over for nearly three weeks last season and setting a few records of his own, Guiton was an invaluable security blanket for the Buckeyes and a model example for the backup position thanks to his study habits, ability to maximize mental reps without many live snaps and his leadership as a team captain.

In that quarterback meeting room and at times under the wing of Guiton last season was Barrett, a freshman quarterback going through a redshirt year and looking to soak up every bit of information he could. His devotion to learning the playbook has drawn comparisons directly to Guiton for Barrett, and if the latter still needs a few tips heading into his first start, the former remains as ready as ever to help out whenever called upon.

"I just always told the backups, we've got to be ready," Guiton said. "We've got to stay ready because you never know when your number is going to be called, and when it is, you want to be ready.

"I actually got a chance to see him yesterday and he looked pretty excited and ready to go, like there's no pressure on his back. There's going to be pressure on him, but if he comes in to those games having prepared well, not really worried about anything else outside of his offense or his team, he'll do just fine."

In some ways, Barrett will actually be thrown into the fire more prepared than Guiton.

According to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Barrett's training camp has included around 300 "competitive throws," attempts that come against a full-strength defense and not the scout team. When Guiton first came off the bench to replace Miller in a game two years ago, Meyer pegged his number of competitive throws at six.

It's a tribute to Guiton that he was able to finish off drives in a hard-fought battle with Michigan State and lead a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against Purdue to keep the Buckeyes on track for a perfect season in 2012 with so few live snaps in practice. And at the same time, it also suggests that Barrett might truly be in better position to thrive than Ohio State's most famous backup.

"I feel like J.T. is in a great situation," Guiton said. "He's a young guy who has a year of college football and now he's actually getting reps. It's not just mental reps, he's getting real reps. He's actually in there, actually seeing himself on film, and he's in there running it with the ones. I think he's actually in a better position.

"With the reps J.T. is getting in practice, he will be ready. He's getting reps, and as a redshirt freshman, I wish I got those kind of reps and the shot he's getting."

With or without the practice time, Guiton always made the most of his chances behind Miller. Now it's Barrett's turn to try to do the same.

Best case/Worst case: Illinois

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:00
PM ET
We are a week away from football, and as the season preview winds down, we are taking a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

As a reminder, these aren't actual predictions or even projections of probable outcomes this fall. They are designed to show the potential high point and low point for a team, within reason. Also, we are trying to have some fun here, so don't take things too seriously.

Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Best case

Oskee wow-wow, indeed. Illinois is going bowling again and surprising the Big Ten along the way. The Illini ride the transfer train and the development of several young players to an extremely satisfying 2014 season.

Quarterback Wes Lunt shows immediately why he is the right man to lead Bill Cubit's offense, shredding Youngstown State and Western Illinois for a combined 750 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The Block I shouts "Geronimo!" as wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauls in two long scoring passes in his first game for the Orange and Blue.

Illinois heads to Seattle at 2-0 but still concerned about how its defense will hold up. Turns out, the D is the biggest reason for a huge "W" at Husky Stadium, as Illinois stuns Chris Petersen's Washington team. T.J. Neal and Jihad Ward force second-half fumbles and the Illini prevail 20-17.

After an easy win against Texas State, the Illini fall just short at Nebraska but rebound the next week with a 50-point performance against Purdue, as Josh Ferguson runs for 200 yards. Illinois pushes Wisconsin to overtime before falling in Madison, but the defense once again stands tall in a win against Minnesota. The Illini are bowl-eligible, and they are nowhere near finished.

Following a 3-point loss at Ohio State, Illinois wins its final three Big Ten contests, two against rivals (Iowa and Northwestern). Iowa's first game against Illinois since 2008 is a disaster, as the Hawkeyes lose by 14 at a packed Memorial Stadium and cameras catch coach Kirk Ferentz chewing tobacco on the sideline. In the Northwestern contest, freshman wideout Mikey Dudek has three touchdown catches and Ward levels Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald on the sideline. A mostly Illinois crowd cheers as offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic scores on a two-point conversion to seal a 50-17 win. The Chicago papers declare Illinois as the city's real Big Ten team, while Northwestern finishes 2-10.

Tim Beckman wins Big Ten Coach of the Year. Allison wins the Big Ten's Richter-Howard award as the top receiver, while "Geronimo!" T-shirts can be spotted all around campus. Illinois sells out its final three home games. Cubit turns down three higher-paying offensive coordinator jobs to stick with the Illini. The nation's top three junior-college players sign with Illinois, and the high school recruits roll in. The Illini advance to the Holiday Bowl and beat UCLA to finish 10-3.

Worst case

Oskee ow-ow. It's another gloomy fall in Champaign, where Illinois fans quickly begin counting the days until basketball season. They don't show up in the stands and, most Saturdays, neither does the team. Cover your eyes, Illini Nation ...

After two unsatisfying wins to open the season, Illinois gets pummeled at Husky Stadium. Lunt throws three interceptions and Washington's running back committee racks up 250 yards. Beckman has to be separated from his defensive assistants in the second half.

Illinois improves to 3-1 against Texas State but suffers another road beating at Nebraska, as Ameer Abdullah runs for four touchdowns. The following week, Purdue records its first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell as Illinois can't find the end zone in a 21-6 loss. Beckman announces a quarterback change two days later. Several starters come down with food poisoning after eating beans and weenies.

It gets uglier in Madison as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement run wild on a defense that clearly hasn't improved from 2013. Wisconsin leads by 40 after three quarters, but cameras catch some Illini players smiling and doing the "Jump Around." They incur Beckman's wrath during practice the next week.

Only 26,000 fans show up the next week for the Minnesota game, and those in Illini colors wish they hadn't. Minnesota rushes for 330 yards and wins 28-3. Beckman draws a penalty for obstructing an official on the sideline -- again.

More blowouts follow against Ohio State and Penn State. Following the loss to Penn State, several Illini players ask Nittany Lions coach James Franklin if they can transfer to PSU.

The season ends with another lopsided loss at Northwestern, which clinches the West Division title before a sold-out Ryan Field. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the game in a purple leotard. A smiling Dick Butkus poses for pictures afterward with Fitzgerald.

Ward finishes with no sacks and Allison fails to record a touchdown catch. Beckman seems done at Illinois but athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired him, says the coach will return in 2015. Cubit won't as he's off to the SEC. Attendance continues to nosedive. Northwestern wins the Big Ten. Iowa wins the Orange Bowl.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
AM ET
video 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.

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