Big Ten: Indiana Hoosiers
News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.
Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
- Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
- Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
- Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
- Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
- Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
- Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
- Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
- Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
- Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
- Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
- Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
- Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
- Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
- Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
- Barrett, Ohio State's new top quarterback, will answer the call, according to his high school coach. Meanwhile, Miller's potential return in 2015 could help the Buckeyes with a top QB prospect. And the injury serves as a blow to the entire Big Ten.
- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was in midseason form for a scrimmage this week.
- Michigan looks set to start true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle, a sure sign of the urgency to upgrade the offensive line.
- What Miller's injury means to Penn State.
- Indiana's 3-4 defense features a versatile group of linebackers.
- Maryland is one of the first schools to announce that it will honor all scholarships until graduation.
- Helmet cameras offer a new perspective at Rutgers.
- Maxx Williams might be the next great Gopher tight end.
- Northwestern looks for contributions from four freshmen.
- Answering questions about Illinois.
- Purdue's Appleby remains confident in role as backup.
- Tackle Rob Havenstein is the unchallenged leader of the Wisconsin offense.
- Dreaming of what might be at stake as Iowa hosts Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving.
- Nebraska's Fyfe makes a strong move to earn a scholarship.
- A Penn State tradition is gone.
If you missed it, the two-time Tribune Silver Football winner, one of the most decorated individuals in Big Ten history and the key to Ohio State's bid for a conference title and a potential run to the College Football Playoffs, left the second practice of a two-a-day session on Monday with what appears to be a new injury to his already surgically-repaired shoulder. A source confirmed to ESPN.com late on Monday that trainers attended to Miller on the field after a throw that the Buckeyes expected to be a barometer of progress as he regained strength in the muscles around his shoulder.
There's no word yet on the severity, but obviously the workout didn't go as planned. The program hasn't confirmed the injury or released any information about medical tests at this point, but it has a previously-scheduled media availability slated for this morning. Stay tuned for more information as the story continues to develop.
As for the rest of the conference?
Depth chart shuffling
- Michigan hasn't finalized its plans in the backfield, but Derrick Green is currently in the top spot at running back.
- Michigan State is moving around some bodies up front after an injury to right guard Connor Kruse.
- As expected, Danny Etling won the quarterback job and will be the starter when Purdue opens the season against Western Michigan.
- Behind Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett has emerged as the backup most capable of moving the offense -- edging ahead of Cardale Jones.
- A cross between a "mad scientist" and a movie character, Bob Shoop impressed his boss at Penn State from the moment he met James Franklin.
- One secret to Steve Longa's success at linebacker for Rutgers? Ritually watching film of Ray Lewis.
- A string of injuries ended the playing career of lineman Nate Clarke, but he's making a quick transition to coaching as a student assistant for Maryland.
- Indiana is trying to keep the ball rolling with recruits.
- Nebraska held a handful of players out of their most recent scrimmage, but there's no reason to be alarmed as the program tries to stay fresh ahead of what could be a taxing September.
- Wes Lunt appears to still be in the lead at quarterback for Illinois, but official word is expected on Wednesday after practice.
- Where can Iowa improve? It could probably start in the red zone.
- In another look at how Northwestern could handle its nonconference schedule, Kevin Trahan asks if the Wildcats should pursue neutral-site games.
- Wisconsin might wind up putting freshman quarterback D.J. Gillins on the field this season after another solid outing in Monday's scrimmage.
- There are plenty of pass-rushers in the well-stocked Big Ten looking to make an impact. Count Minnesota's Theiren Cockran among the defensive ends looking to be "the guy" this season.
OK, enough small talk. Let's dive right into today's Big Ten mailbag.
@ESPN_BigTen @ESPNJoshMoyer other than Gordon & Abdullah, who will/can be a dominant RB in the #B1G ? - Brett May Burn (@B_Mac29) August 18, 2014Josh Moyer: Two names immediately spring to mind: Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Indiana's Tevin Coleman. Langford did pretty darn well in his first year as a starter in 2013, and he can only get better. He didn't carry the ball more than 20 times until Game 6. And, from that point on, he carried the ball at least 21 times in every contest and set a school record by reaching 100 yards in eight straight games. He's the odds-on favorite to once again lead the Big Ten in rushing TDs and, nationally, only four returning tailbacks gained more yards than him last season. Plus, Connor Cook said in the spring that Langford has taken on a much bigger role in the passing game. With Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah taking up most of the spotlight in the B1G, Langford might be one of the most overlooked tailbacks in the nation. Coleman has received a lot of love from the Big Ten blog, but for good reason. He missed the final three games of 2013 with an ankle injury and never received above 20 carries a game -- but still finished with 958 yards. He also averaged 7.3 yards a carry last season and was even able to reel off a 64-yard run against Michigan State. With another offseason and a healthy ankle, the explosive junior has the potential be the Big Ten's surprise tailback this season.
@ESPNJoshMoyer Oregon O vs MSU D is main talking point, but why isn't MSU O vs Oregon D getting more attention? - Colin Dilworth (@Dilworth269) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Let me answer your question with another question, Colin. What game would you prefer to watch: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech or Alabama vs. Oregon? One features the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team; the other features USA Today's No. 37 team vs. No. 80 team. (Last season the Spartans' offense was ranked No. 80 and Oregon's defense was No. 37). In other words, at its heart, strength on strength is just more entertaining. So, naturally, it's going to draw attention away from the other matchup. Still, the other matchup constitutes half the game, so let's take this time to look a bit closer at that "other" battle. Oregon's defense has a better ranking than the Spartans' offense, but there's still a lot at play here. On the surface, the Ducks boast a great run-defense since they allowed just 3.8 yards a carry last season. But there are some potential issues. For one, the two teams that had the most rushing attempts against the Ducks -- Stanford and Arizona State --both wore them down and ended up with wins. Secondly, only three teams in the nation were worse against the run on third down (65.5 percent conversion rate) and only seven teams in the nation were worse at stopping rushing plays at the line of scrimmage (17.8 percent). And, thirdly, Oregon has to replace two good defensive tackles. So you have to think Langford's success inside should have a big impact on the game. In the secondary, Oregon also boasts one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 in cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. So Cook would be wise to avoid him altogether, especially since the Ducks don't have a proven No. 2 CB. So, sure, the Michigan State offense vs. Oregon defense has its own storylines at play. But count me in with the majority. I'm still more looking forward to the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. Can Michigan State crumble the hopes of a Heisman hopeful? Can Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota deflate the aspirations of Spartan Nation just one week into the season? That's just going to be plain fun to watch.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How many wins to start the season will it take for PSU to be ranked. 5-0 headed into Mich or 6-0 headed into OSU week? - Sean Abbott (@sean_e_abbott) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Hey, I dig the optimism, but getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we, Sean? Anyway, I could definitely see Penn State getting some votes and making an appearance around Nos. 24 or 25 if it knocks off Northwestern to go 5-0. But chances are it'll need another quality win -- or at least one that trumps the likes of Akron and UMass -- to really work its way into the top 25. (A reminder: Polls will have little to no bearing on the playoff this season.) A quick start like that is possible, but it won't be easy with three decent opponents. Central Florida has a great secondary and could test Christian Hackenberg with his inexperienced wideouts. Rutgers' defensive line could pose problems for PSU's thin offensive line, which will likely feature two converted defensive tackles at offensive guard. And, even without Venric Mark, Northwestern boasts enough returning starters to pose a problem. A celebration after a 5-0 start might even be a bit premature for Penn State because the stretch immediately afterward is more important. There are no guarantees there: at Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, at Indiana. How PSU fares there might be the key to its season.
@ESPNJoshMoyer My friend is getting married on September 6th, one of the biggest weekend of matchups for the B1G all year. Should I go? - Matthew Milko (@B1Gcast) August 17, 2014Josh Moyer: Hoo boy, that's a tough one. Important follow-up question: How good of a friend? It's definitely a good week for Big Ten football but mainly due to three matchups: Michigan-Notre Dame, Michigan State-Oregon and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. Also, Northwestern-Northern Illinois might not be bad. But everything else? Hmmm ... how do I put this delicately? Unwatchable garbage (e.g. - Rutgers-Howard, Nebraska-McNeese State, Maryland-USF, etc.). But there might be hope for you, Matthew. The kickoff for the earliest of those three games is 6:30 p.m., so that should at least give you some time to find a TV at the reception. Or, barring a TV (what kind of wedding is this?), give you time to fake the stomach flu. I can only imagine "Dear Abby" would offer the same advice. Or at least she should. Godspeed.
And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
- Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
- Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
- Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
- Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
- Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.
Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.
On to the links:
1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.
2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.
3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.
4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.
5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.
6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.
7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.
- Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell said he had to work as a bartender this summer to keep the lights and water on at his apartment. Huskers defensive tackle Aaron Curry will reportedly transfer to Oklahoma.
- Freshman Rafael Gaglianone and his booming Brazilian leg could take over Wisconsin's field goal duties (which could, sadly, mean an end to my Jack Russell puns).
- The LSU game is key to Melvin Gordon's Heisman hopes, Tom Oates writes. Totally agree. Even with a poor opener, Gordon could get back in the race by piling up yards. But Wisconsin's schedule means the Badgers won't get much national attention for weeks.
- Tracy Claeys is molding a strong defense at Minnesota.
- Five takeaways from Illinois' time at Camp Rantoul.
- Confidence is swelling for Michigan State's passing game. Spartans true freshman Montae Nicholson is already making an impression at cornerback and could possibly play some on offense.
- Ohio State's defensive line appears destined for greatness.
- Penn State is nearly ready to flip the switch and start preparing for UCF. James Franklin is having an effect on every corner of Penn State.
- Rutgers has plenty of big playmakers on offense.
Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.
@mitchsherman I can't decide which is more asinine, winning 8 as a best case, or only winning 3 as a worst case. Awful stuff.- Joe Chamberlin (@realjchamberlin) August 13, 2014
Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.
Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.
Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.
@mitchsherman Is NU "relevant" & "stable" or was Wed's interview just SE realizing he needed to say something this year PRIOR to season?— David (@drhgeronimo) August 14, 2014
Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles.
@mitchsherman they gonna put jabril peppers in the hall of fame during the season or you think they'll wait until after the year?— Nate James (@FortuNateShev) August 15, 2014
We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.
Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).
Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”
That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.
Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.
Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.
I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.
In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.
My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.
Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
- Alabama transfer and current Ohio State Buckeye Chad Lindsay is competing for a starting spot at center.
- Michigan State boasts about seven offensive linemen who can be a part of the rotation, but assistant coach Mark Staten wants more.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
- A closer look at Rutgers' Thursday practice, from the opening song (Jackson 5's "ABC") to highlights of the day.
- Observations from Penn State's practice and who's standing out so far.
- Michigan's Saturday scrimmage will likely have an impact on how the starting offensive line turns out.
- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to play up to his players' intelligence by asking them to be more versatile. The Badgers' freshman class is already starting to make an impression.
- Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
- Who's going to be Minnesota's No. 2 tailback? Good question -- because the Gophers are still trying to figure that out.
- Purdue hasn't named Danny Etling the starting quarterback quite yet. Right now, it's an "equal opportunity" for all the signal-callers.
- Nebraska junior Givens Price might have found a home as the starting right tackle.
- True freshman wideout Mike Dudek is already impressing on-lookers at Illinois' practices, and one teammate called him the "most consistent wide receiver this camp."
- Without three of last season's top linebackers, the Hawkeyes have plenty of questions at the position -- but they also have plenty of depth.
- Our friends over at Grantland previewed the Big Ten.
For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.
But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.
At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.
Congrats to Curtis Samuel and Raekwon McMillan for being the first 2 freshmen to get their black stripes removed! pic.twitter.com/OZg6314sZ9— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 10, 2014
At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.
The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.
Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.
But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.
- Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
- What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
- The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
- A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
- Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
- Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
- Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
- There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
- Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
- Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
- Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
- An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
- Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
- Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.
Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.
We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.
From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.
Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.
“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”
Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.
How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.
And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?
Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.
So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.
Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.
Around the league ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.
(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)
Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.
Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.
All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.
Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.
From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."
True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."
If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.
Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).
Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.
His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.
"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."
Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.
Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.
IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.
The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.
"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"
Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.
Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...
- A look at how tight end Adam Breneman's injury impacts Penn State this season.
- Nebraska will be without reserve running back Adam Taylor (ankle).
- Ohio State LB Kyle Berger suffers another ACL tear.
- The grind begins this week for Michigan State. The wait for DeAnthony Arnett to make an impact with MSU could be over soon. Arnett came out of the spring feeling great about his progress, telling me, "It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself. I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
- Notes following Maryland's first scrimmage, including the impressive play of running back Brandon Ross.
- This Ohio State practice video is brilliant.
- The latest practice report from Rutgers, which produced no answers about the backup quarterback spot.
- Michigan's offensive line still has a lot of moving parts. The BTN crew weighed in on Michigan's practice on Monday.
- Previewing Indiana.
- Austin Appleby is closing the gap on Danny Etling and keeping Purdue's QB race very much alive.
- Kevin Trahan explains how a dull town in southern Wisconsin is the perfect place for Northwestern to focus on football.
- Illinois' offensive line is coming together these days.
- Marc Morehouse puts Iowa's running back group under the microscope.
- New Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward honors his mom every time he puts on No. 17.
- Wisconsin ends practice with a chipping contest, and coach Gary Andersen hits the mark.
- Minnesota RB Berkley Edwards talks about the advice he has received from his big brother, Braylon.
- Veteran Maryland QB C.J. Brown leads the Terrapins into the Big Ten.
- The best of Robin Williams. RIP.
Let's do this ...
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, we know this much: the Pitt game will be easier from a logistical standpoint than the Arizona trip was in 2010. It's a shorter flight, a friendlier kickoff time (it hasn't been set yet, but the Iowa-Arizona game started at 9:41 p.m. Iowa time) and, most likely, better weather (it was 97 degrees at kickoff in Tucson that night). Iowa didn't look ready to play against Arizona and paid a price. I also think the 2010 Wildcats are better than the 2014 Panthers, although Pitt cannot be overlooked. Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, knows Iowa well and will have his team ready to go.
@ESPNRittenberg Adam, could you see Iowa's game at Pitt this year similar to the 2010 Arizona game? Also any chance gameday a comes to IC?— Matt Mackowiak (@mtmackowiak) August 11, 2014
This is a game Iowa cannot overlook. Pitt has an explosive young wide receiver in Tyler Boyd and other weapons. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa comes to the Steel City. This could be a sneaky good matchup, but it's not nearly as scary as the Arizona game, which had letdown written all over it.
As for "GameDay," I have no idea and have zero input on where they go. But potential late-season showdowns against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa has a chance to host.
Tim from Raleigh writes: From my count, the B1G plays 15 non conference games against the power 5 conferences, 5 of which are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 with a few others close (TCU, Mizzou, Miami, Va Tech). How many of these games do we need to win to get the respect of the rest of the NCAA?
Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Tim, as the Big Ten has more riding on nonleague performance than most major conferences. Two games really jump out as perception shapers: Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Michigan State at Oregon. Lose both of these, especially by wide margins, and it might not matter what happens in the other games. The Big Ten is supposed to pick up wins against Miami (Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), so I'm not sure how much credit the league would get. The recent wins against Notre Dame haven't done much to boost the Big Ten's rep.
The league could use some surprising results, like Rutgers or Illinois beating Washington State and Washington on the road, or Indiana knocking off defending SEC champ Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. TCU would be a nice road win for Minnesota and Penn State should get some credit for beating Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in Ireland. You also want to see Michigan take care of Utah, Iowa to beat Pitt on the road, and Northwestern and Maryland to hold serve against Cal and West Virginia, respectively.
But the two nonconference opponents that really pop for the Big Ten are LSU and Oregon. The league needs one of those games.
Adam Rittenberg: Jared, making a third consecutive bowl game (and winning one) is a good start. But I think you're onto something here with setting the minimum bar at one signature win. It's important for Minnesota to get over the hump against Michigan, which has won six straight against the Gophers despite a down period in its history. But it's even more important for the Gophers to finish the 2014 season on a stronger note than they did last fall, when they dropped their final three games (and scored a total of 27 points).
@ESPNRittenberg, what does Minnesota need to do to keep up the optimism around the program? Is beating UW, UM or Iowa a must this year?— Jared Frank (@JarRFrank) August 11, 2014
I look at Minnesota's closing stretch -- Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) as a defining period for Jerry Kill's program. Can these Gophers rise up and beat the big boys, especially those in the West Division? Or is Minnesota still not quite there and belongs in the second tier? You can't go 0-4 to finish the regular season and claim progress, so at least one win in that stretch is critical. Two would show things are definitely headed in the right direction.
Adam Rittenberg: It's crazy that we're talking about this before Franklin coaches his first game at Penn State, but it's a relevant question. Franklin's name came up in several NFL coach searches after the 2013 season. All but one season of his coaching career has taken place in the college ranks -- he coached the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers in 2005 -- and his personality seems to fit better at the college level, where he can shine as a recruiter. But the NFL can be tough to resist, not only from a financial standpoint but a competitive one.
@ESPNRittenberg How long can Penn State fans expect Franklin to stay as the head coach?— A-A-ron (@josh_euphonium) August 11, 2014
It's all about timing, and Franklin needs to boost Penn State's program before he can look at the NFL. I see him staying for at least three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's there longer. He's an ambitious guy but seems like a good fit in State College.
Up next: Indiana
Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)
Aug 30: Indiana State (1-11)
Sept. 13: at Bowling Green (10-4)
Sept. 20: at Missouri (12-2)
Oct. 4: North Texas (9-4)
East Division games
Sept. 27: Maryland
Oct 18: Michigan State
Nov. 1: at Michigan
Nov. 8: Penn State
Nov. 15: at Rutgers
Nov. 22: at Ohio State
Oct. 11: at Iowa
Nov. 29: Purdue
Gut-check game: The Hoosiers last beat Ohio State in 1988, so it’s pretty safe to say the Buckeyes have had their number. OSU is 20-0-1 in the last 21 meetings, and Indiana’s only come within 10 points once in the last 13 meetings. Oh, and Indiana’s defense has allowed at least 30 points in the last 10 meetings against OSU, too. Defensive coordinator Brian Knorr and his 3-4 defense will definitely have their hands full against Braxton Miller. It’s gut-check time.
Trap game: Bowling Green is far from a guaranteed win and, with two high-scoring offenses, it’s a matchup that has the potential to be pretty entertaining. Sure, Bowling Green lost its head coach, Dave Clawson, to Wake Forest -- but it also hired FCS Eastern Illinois’ Dino Babers, whose quarterback last season passed for more than 5,000 yards and 50 TDs en route to winning the equivalent of the FCS Heisman. Some experts are already picking the Falcons to win the MAC, so last season’s 42-10 win might not translate into another easy win in 2014.
Snoozer: Not only did Indiana schedule an FCS team, but it scheduled a pitiful FCS team. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores, 73-35, last season while piling up 619 yards on offense. And it shouldn’t be much different this season. This is about as close to an automatic win as you can get.
Nonconference challenge: If Missouri finishes the season within the Top 25, it would surprise absolutely no one. The Tigers are a solid team in a solid conference, and it won’t help the Hoosiers much to play Missouri on the road this season. The Tigers cruised past Indiana, 45-28, last season and it could be more of the same this year. Indiana doesn’t play Nebraska or Wisconsin this season but, with Missouri on the schedule, it won’t receive any kind of break.
Analysis: Indiana is aiming for a bowl this season after missing out on the postseason for the last six years. Still, it’s not going to be easy -- and Indiana could end up right on the bubble. Two things really have to happen for the Hoosiers to reach or break .500: One, improve that awful defense and, two, win the close games. Only two Indiana games were decided by a touchdown or less in 2013, and it lost them both (to Navy, 41-35, and to Minnesota, 42-39). On the plus side, Indiana’s defense can’t get much worse ... but, on the negative end, we’ve also been saying that for years.
With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.
In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.
A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.
Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.
Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.
It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.
The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.
"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."
These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.
Depth chart stuff
- This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
- Indiana defensive end David Kenney has taken a leave of absence.
- Brady Hoke says De'Veon Smith is leading Michigan's running back race, while Derrick Green is third behind Smith and Drake Johnson.
- Illinois is starting to winnow its options at receiver.
- Nebraska is figuring things out on the offensive line, especially on the right side.
- Freshmen linebackers Gelen Robinson and Ja'Whaun Bentley are making an early splash at Purdue. Head coach Darrell Hazell told me in Bristol last month that the 250-pound Bentley was winning about nine out of every 10 gassers among the linebackers. They should both play a lot, if not start, right away.
- Some discouraging news for Wisconsin's Vonte Jackson, whose attempt to return from three previous torn ACLs was dealt a setback.
- Maryland star receiver Stefon Diggs, coming off a broken leg, says he is ahead of where he should be right now.
- Ohio State starting running back Ezekiel Elliott had surgery on his left wrist, but he is expected to play in the opener.
- Minnesota's offense unfortunately looked a lot like it did at the end of last season in Saturday's scrimmage, settling for three field goals but no touchdowns. Give some of the credit to the Gophers' defense, and big-play cornerback Derrick Wells.
- The offense had a big day in Michigan State's first scrimmage.
- Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy both played well in Wisconsin's Sunday scrimmage, and Gary Andersen said both could play in the opener.
- Will Brian Ferentz follow his dad's footsteps and become a head coach? His presence on the Iowa staff has been energizing, and with his NFL experience to boot, the younger Ferentz should be able to write his own ticket soon.
- How the Hawkeyes' Carl Davis -- who was once deemed too big to play football -- put it all together.
- Very entertaining piece here on Nebraska video coordinator Mike Nobler, the resident court jester on Pelini's staff
- Illinois wants to have bowl plans this season.
- Aaron Bailey, part of the three-man quarterback race at Illinois, finds newfound comfort in Bill Cubit’s offensive system.
- Northern Iowa checks in at No. 10 on the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s ranking of opponents on the Iowa schedule. Receiver Tevaun Smith loves him some Iowa.
- The Indiana defense learns to play in attack mode.
- Quarterback C.J. Brown performs well as Maryland finishes its first practice in pads of the preseason.
- Touted freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers will continue to work at nickel, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, after an injury to safety Delano Hill.
- Michigan State features an intriguing group of receivers, writes Graham Couch.
- Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says the Gophers should continue to improve on defense, despite the loss of some important pieces.
- Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe is not about to sit down quietly behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska.
- Braxton Miller will not wear out his arm during preseason practices at Ohio State. Competition heats up on the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
- What’s the key to success for the Penn State O-line? Trust and chemistry, says assistant coach Herb Hand.
- Purdue offensive tackle David Hedelin, suspended by the NCAA for the first three games this year, expects big things after a positive opening of practice.
- Gary Nova is the man again for Rutgers at quarterback. More on Nova.
- Wisconsin running back Corey Clement has high hopes for his sophomore season as a running mate to Melvin Gordon.
Now, on to your questions ...
Bennett: Tom, I think you hit the nail on the head. As I evaluate the individual teams, I like Nebraska's overall roster the best. The Huskers have far fewer question marks than Wisconsin and better overall athleticism, in my opinion, than Iowa. (Though that didn't help Nebraska much last year in Lincoln vs. the Hawkeyes. Bo Pelini's team was pretty beat up by then and there was a lot of negativity around the program, but Iowa still took it to them on the road).
There's no question Nebraska has a tougher schedule than either Iowa or Wisconsin. The Huskers have to go to both Madison and Iowa City, and they drew Michigan State on the road as a crossover while neither the Hawkeyes nor the Badgers have to play any of the top East contenders. Schedules definitely matter. I think the Spartans would have won the Big Ten regardless last fall, but their crossover games -- Indiana, Illinois and Purdue, with no Wisconsin or Ohio State -- certainly didn't hurt. A true championship team can overcome schedule hurdles, however. We'll have to see if Nebraska is good enough to do so.
Bennett: If it was as simple as determining which conference should be left out, that would be one thing -- and there's no doubt the Big Ten wouldn't have stood a chance in 2012. The selection committee will also have to decide if there are two worthy teams from one conference (hello there, SEC fans). Conference strength shouldn't matter as much as how good an individual team is and who it played during the nonconference schedule. For example, let's say the Big Ten is down as a whole this year, but Michigan State or Wisconsin plows through the league undefeated. If they also won their marquee nonconference games (Oregon and LSU, respectively) and those opponents went on to have the kind of seasons we expect, then a weak Big Ten wouldn't hold them down.
I agree that it's going to be very rare, if not outright impossible, to have more than four undefeated teams. The real wrangling will be over similar 1-loss teams who played very different schedules. College football has always had a numbers problem, as the Big Ten and Big 12 membership illustrates. Now it has five power conferences for four playoff spots. And so it goes.
Bennett: You can never predict with precision which true freshmen will perform at a high level right away. Players develop at different rates, learn the finer points of the game at different speeds, suffer from home sickness, etc. That said, I tend to lean toward freshmen who A) enrolled early to get a head start on the process and B) play a position where it's easier to have an immediate impact. Based on what I saw in the spring, my pick on offense for the Indiana offense is wide receiver Dominique Booth. He's got a good build at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he was a well-regarded recruit, and he plays a position of need for the Hoosiers after the loss of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. I'd be surprised if he didn't get some early playing time.
@BennettESPN which true freshmen on offense and defense do you see having the greatest impact on the Hoosiers this fall?— Nick Holmes ( @HoosierHolmes) Aug. 5, 2014
IU didn't have any early enrollees on defense, but I think Kevin Wilson could call on some young guys in the secondary. So I'll go with safety Will Dawkins. Wilson has never been shy about throwing true freshmen into the fire, though the hope is that his staff has built enough depth now that they won't be relied upon as much in 2014.
Bennett: Schools didn't have a whole lot of say in the formation of the schedule once they all agreed on some general principles. And, naturally, Michigan didn't want the Notre Dame series to end how it did. You're right that some home schedules may suffer a little bit. However, in 2016, when the Michigan State and Ohio State games are away, Wisconsin and Penn State come to the Big House. In 2018, Nebraska joins those two teams as visitors to Ann Arbor. They may not be historic rivals, but those should still be attractive games. And the loss of the Notre Dame series allows Michigan to schedule some very good nonconference home-and-homes, which will mean visits in the future from Arkansas ('18), Virginia Tech ('20), UCLA ('22) and Oklahoma ('26) in those even-numbered years.
Bennett: Wow. I thought the preseason was supposed to be a time for optimism. I don't ever like to speculate on successors until a coaching change is clearly coming, and I don't root for any coach to lose his job. I will say that there's a good chance that the Illini are 4-2 after their first six games if they beat the teams they will be favored against. If so, that means Illinois would be in bowl contention for the entire month of November. I don't expect any kind of midseason firing in Champaign unless things go horribly awry.