Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes
Matt from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: Adam, I think the real X-factor for Michigan this year is Coach Nuss. Lost in the well-documented struggles of Michigan's offense last year is the fact that Al Borges completely mismanaged the players' talents by switching schemes on an almost weekly basis and calling plays (especially in big games on the road) that left fans scratching their heads. Having a consistent scheme and sound play calling (which I expect from Nuss) will be a HUGE step forward in the right direction for Michigan this year. Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: There's certainly some truth to your assessment of Borges, although to be fair, he inherited players recruited to the spread and had to use a hybrid system at times while working toward a true pro-style offense. Doug Nussmeier should provide a clearer identity on offense, but I still wonder if he's working with a spread quarterback (Devin Gardner) who seemed to flourish when Michigan used more spread concepts last season (Indiana, Ohio State games).
You're right that consistency in scheme and play calling is critical for Michigan, but nothing will matter if the line doesn't improve. Michigan has recruited too well up front to struggle as much as it did at times last season. No group in the Big Ten is under more scrutiny than Michigan's front five. If the line holds, Nussmeier should have the entire unit on the right track.
@ESPNRittenberg Notre Dame plays 3 B1G squads this season. Who do you think has the best odds to beat the Irish? Who has the worst?— Andy Day (@adayNU) August 1, 2014
Rittenberg: It's between Michigan and Northwestern for me. While I believe Purdue will be substantially better, and the Boilers have played Notre Dame well in recent years, the Irish have too much offensive firepower for Purdue with Everett Golson back at quarterback. Both Michigan and Northwestern play Notre Dame on the road, which won't be easy, and injuries could be a factor for the Northwestern game, which takes place so late in the season (Nov. 15).
I think the surprise factor of a Week 2 matchup could help Michigan, which has won six of the past eight matchups with Notre Dame and had plenty of chances to win two years ago in South Bend. We don't know what to expect from the Wolverines' offense under Nussmeier, and Notre Dame appears to be vulnerable on defense. Northwestern traditionally has been very good in November and has earned several big road wins under Pat Fitzgerald. You know Fitz, who played linebacker during Northwestern's breakthrough 1995 win at Notre Dame, will have the Wildcats geared up for that one.
@ESPNRittenberg What is driving Wisconsins high preseason ranking? Weak schedule? Melvin Gordon? Stellar quarterbacking? *laughs*.. Other?— Lucas Capistrant (@LCapistrant1) August 1, 2014
Rittenberg: It's a combination of Melvin Gordon's return, the scheduling, Wisconsin's track record of consistent good and sometimes great seasons, and, well, laziness. Anyone who truly studies Wisconsin's roster and others around college football can't intelligently label the Badgers as a top-15 team. Could they evolve into one? Absolutely. Gary Andersen is a very good coach with a very good staff. But this is a team with huge questions at quarterback, receiver and in the defensive front seven.
Iowa is a more complete team with just as favorable a schedule, if not more so (Wisconsin visits Iowa City on Nov. 22). Nebraska could be the most talented team in the West Division, although its road schedule (MSU, Wisconsin, Iowa) is pretty tough. Wisconsin might evolve into a top-15 team and reach the Big Ten title game, but the Badgers' preseason ranking is based more on who they've been in the past, not on what they appear to be entering the fall.
@ESPNRittenberg which teams have the best/worst non-conference schedules?— Jeremy Root (@msujroot) August 1, 2014
Rittenberg: It's a simple question with a not-so simple answer. It all depends on how you measure nonleague schedules, as I wrote back in June. It's great that Michigan State (Oregon) and Wisconsin (LSU) are playing marquee opponents. They deserve credit for those matchups. But their remaining nonleague slates aren't too exciting. Still, I'd put MSU and Wisconsin at the top along with Ohio State (Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Navy) and Northwestern (Notre Dame, Northern Illinois, Cal).
I also don't mind what teams like Michigan (Notre Dame, Utah), Nebraska (Miami, Fresno State), Indiana (Missouri, Bowling Green), Maryland (West Virginia, Syracuse) and Iowa (Pitt, Iowa State) have on the docket. Minnesota and Illinois both have pretty weak nonleague schedules other than trips to TCU and Washington, respectively.
Jacob from Sioux Falls, S.D., writes: Adam,For the sake of having fun...Ohio State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame finish undefeated. In your opinion...Which two would get left out of the playoff?
Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Jacob, albeit a highly unlikely scenario. Oregon and Notre Dame are locks to be in because of their schedules. The Ducks play a nine-game Pac-12 slate, a league title game and Michigan State in Week 2. Notre Dame has a terrific schedule (Florida State, Stanford, Louisville, Arizona State, USC, among others). I also expect Alabama to be in there unless the SEC really struggles this fall.
Georgia Tech probably gets left out unless it beats an undefeated Florida State in the ACC title game. So it comes down to Oklahoma and Ohio State. I don't know if Oklahoma benefits from playing Tennessee, a team that could struggle this year. Ohio State's overall nonleague schedule is better, and I think the Big Ten is a bit better than the Big 12 this season. So I'd give the Buckeyes a slight edge, leaving Oklahoma out.
- Michigan believed it had a future star during training camp last August, but then wide receiver Amara Darboh was lost to injury. The Wolverines are counting on him to get back to the level he was at a year ago.
- A detailed look at reasons Penn State can rise to contention in the East Division.
- Not surprisingly, Oregon and a "statement game" aren't far from the minds of Michigan State as it reports for practice.
- Drug charges were dismissed as former Ohio State defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle pleaded no contest to an amended charge of attempted failure to comply with a police order. His status with the Buckeyes hasn't been reevaluated by Urban Meyer.
- Steered by sports, Nebraska safety Corey Cooper stays on the right path to success.
- Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is motivated heading into camp and "sick and tired of being 1-11."
- Converted linebacker Alec James provides a perfect example of what Wisconsin is trying to build on the defensive line.
- Gary Nova isn't officially the starting quarterback at Rutgers yet, but he's likely to be the pick and his relationship with offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen could be crucial if the program is going to surprise in the Big Ten.
- Iowa was left out of the preseason top 25 by the coaches. Might that be a good thing for the Hawkeyes?
- There's little doubt Minnesota can run the football. Will the passing attack move up from last in the Big Ten this fall?
All week, we've been revealing our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for 2014.
Now comes the moment you've been waiting for: the best of the best. Here are the top five players as we see them, based on past performance and potential for this season and as voted on by our crew of Big Ten reporters:
5. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Beast. That's the first word that comes to mind when you watch Gregory. He can match anyone in the country athletically, and he's got a motor that runs all day. Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks with 10.5 last season, and what's most impressive about that is that it was his first season of major college football. The potential for even greater things is there in 2014.
No. 4: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers
Few players cause you to hold your breath when they touch the ball more than the Badgers' junior tailback. He gobbles up turf with his long strides, and when he turns the corner on a defense, he's gone in a flash. Gordon averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry last season, and he could easily lead the nation in rushing in 2014.
No. 3: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa Hawkeyes
Is there a stronger player in the Big Ten, or college football? After watching this, that seems doubtful. But Scherff, who played quarterback in high school, is more than just a hulk of muscles. He's nimble and physical, making him one of the best offensive tackles anywhere and the anchor of Iowa's plan of attack.
No. 2: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Abdullah led the Big Ten in total rushing yards last season and has the most career 100-yard games among FBS players with 17. His 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame belies the toughness with which he runs, and he's also got the speed to blow by people. He's the heart and soul of Nebraska and one of the fiercest competitors around.
No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State Buckeyes
Who else? Miller is the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year who will try to make it three straight as a senior. There are holes to pick in his game -- he's not a pinpoint passer, he gets banged up a bit too much -- but he almost always finds a way to get the job done, especially in the clutch. The belt belongs to him until someone else snatches it.
Check out all the interviews: Part I and Part II.
Part I includes: Purdue's Darrell Hazell (1:42 mark), Penn State's James Franklin (11:59 mark), Rutgers' Kyle Flood (19:59 mark), Minnesota's Jerry Kill (31:30 mark), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (42:49 mark), Wisconsin's Gary Andersen (52:18 mark) and Illinois' Tim Beckman (1:03:09 mark).
Part II includes: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (2:46 mark), Maryland's Randy Edsall (13:22 mark), Michigan's Brady Hoke (24:19 mark), Indiana's Kevin Wilson (36:31 mark), Ohio State's Urban Meyer (49:22 mark), Nebraska's Bo Pelini (1:03:07 mark) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (1:15:05 mark).
Some really good stuff here, and a great way to get caught up on all the Big Ten teams before the season kicks off in about four weeks.
@mitchsherman How do you see Rutgers take on Beamer ball fitting into the B1G (most blocked kicks since 2009)?— Jay Poole (@JayRutgers09) July 31, 2014
Mitch Sherman: That's an excellent observation, Jay, and an aspect of the Scarlet Knights largely overlooked in this transition to the Big Ten. Rutgers has blocked 35 kicks over the past five seasons, nine more than any other FBS program, and it's consistently won the battle on special teams. While Kyle Flood, his staff and players must prepare for eight new league opponents this fall -- a tall task -- perhaps they can surprise a few foes with strong play in the kicking game. It's a powerful card to play; few plays in football change momentum like blocked kicks. Facing a brutal league schedule, Rutgers will likely get more aggressive than ever in going after kicks.
@mitchsherman give me a few things to be optimistic about for the upcoming B1G season for Purdue. Max wins?— Purdue Boilermakers (@Boilers2006) July 31, 2014
Mitch Sherman: Start with the schedule. Three of Purdue' five most difficult games -- against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa -- are at home. A fourth is to be played at a neutral site (perhaps better labeled off-campus) against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Ryan Russell is primed to enjoy a big senior season. Among a stacked group of Big Ten defensive ends, he is perhaps the most underrated. Seniors Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt possess legitimate speed. If Purdue can create space for them to run, the big-play threat is real. And while the quarterback spot is not entirely settled, Danny Etling showed real improvement toward the end of his true freshman season. Mark it down: the win total will rise from last year's one. I'll place the max figure at six, though four or five looks more likely.
Mitch Sherman: I'm not going to overthink this. It looks like Derrick Willies, and I think it will be Willies. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman starred in spring scrimmages. I expect his strong play to carry over to this season. Iowa features veterans in Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith, but none possess the athleticism of Willies. He may not start from the outset, but look for his playing time to increase as Willies shows his big-play potential. For quarterback Jake Rudock, the presence of a big target who can make plays on the ball provides a great comfort. If Willies emerges as expected, the Iowa offense -- already solid if not flashy -- gets an added dimension.
ESPN.com has taken on the herculean task of ranking the top 100 players in college football entering the 2014 season. These are based on expected contributions for the 2014 season, regardless of position.
The list is being released in 20-player increments, and today we reach players ranked Nos. 40-31 and 30-21. Three Big Ten players appeared in this group, and here they are:
No. 34: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
No. 23: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
No. 21: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
There can't be too much controversy with these picks -- maybe I would have moved one or two guys up a handful of spots, but that is it -- as this trio deservedly punched their ticket to the top 40.
They are all proven commodities who have shown they are among the best in the Big Ten. Abdullah finished second in the conference with 130 rushing yards per game, Bosa played even better than his 7.5 sacks indicated, and Scherff has catapulted up some analysts’ draft boards as the projected No. 1 overall pick in 2015. Sure, Bosa is the only guy who didn’t earn a spot on the All-Big Ten team last season -- but he was also a true freshman who started 10 games and led his team in quarterback hurries. He was named a freshman All-American by several publications.
Scherff acknowledged this week that he needs to improve on his pass-blocking, and that might be part of the reason he is not ranked in the top 15. (One scouting report said his "occasional missteps in pass-protection can be corrected with more experience.") It’s not that he is below-average in that department -- far from it -- but it’s clear he is best at, and prefers, the run game. “If a team can run the ball, why pass?” he asked Monday. That being said, I’m still big on Scherff. And if we had this same poll at the end of the season, I think Scherff would be the most likely out of these three to move up. He is easily the best offensive lineman in the conference, and more eyes should be on him this season after an incredible weightlifting video that went viral.
As for Abdullah, his spot might spark the most debate of these three. Some might prefer him to Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, but it’s pretty difficult to separate those two. I mean, there is not exactly a giant gulf between the player who rushed for 1,690 yards last season (Abdullah) and the one who rushed for 1,609 (Gordon). I’m fine with our panel picking Gordon over Abdullah, although some might feel differently.
So, overall, I think the rankings here are pretty solid. Nothing can ever be perfect when it comes to player rankings, and the accompanying opinions, but I think this segment is pretty darn close. The real controversy comes with the top 20 on Friday ...
In the first edition of the Coaches Poll, released Thursday, Ohio State and Michigan State led the way for the Big Ten and gave the league two representatives in the top 10. The No. 6 Buckeyes were the only team in the conference to receive a first-place vote, which helped push them somewhat comfortably ahead of the No. 8 Spartans in terms of voting points.
Leading the charge for the Big Ten West was Wisconsin, which perhaps was somewhat of a surprise as it checked in at No. 14 to open the season. The Badgers have some questions to answer heading into August, but the coaches unofficially backed them as the pick to win a wide-open division race ahead of No. 22 Nebraska.
Those were the only four Big Ten programs to sneak into the first poll, though Michigan and Iowa were knocking on the door and both Minnesota and Northwestern received votes.
The poll doesn't have much all that much value beyond getting a general sense of how the coaches see the race playing out this fall, as the poll doesn't factor into playoff selection. Heading into the season, a Big Ten squad wouldn't be among the four teams to play for the national championship, based on these rankings. Based on the numbers, the voters put the league on equal footing with the Big 12 with four programs in the initial Top 25, trailing both the Pac-12 (six) and the pace-setting SEC (seven).
This is my first Big Ten mailbag, but don't go easy on me. Let's get this started.
Josh Moyer: Good question, Jackie. It's a bit of a complicated issue, so let's kind of take it step by step here. First of all, there are two types of insurances built around players who are normally projected to go within the first three rounds: Loss-of-value insurance in case an injury -- maybe a torn ACL, for example -- causes a player to drop in the NFL draft, and then there's insurance that only covers a player in case he suffers a career-ending injury. Both insurances have really become common, and the NCAA's actually allowed this for about 25 years. The NCAA will even extend loans to players who want the insurance -- it's part of the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program, which helps out about 60 to 80 football players a year -- but, of course, there's a catch. The NCAA will only grant loans to players who want the career-ending insurance. Want the loss-of-value policy? Too bad. You'll have to get that yourself, and that'll cost five-figures.
Melvin Gordon wanted both policies, and they cost about $28,000, according to this article by Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Oates. That kind of money might be easy to come by for Johnny Football's family -- but not for most others. So Wisconsin paid for the policies out of the Student Opportunity Fund, and I applaud the move. I spoke to Wisconsin SID Brian Lucas this afternoon, and he acknowledged it's pretty rare for a university to pay for the insurance. (It is a first for Wisconsin, although Texas A&M has also done it.) But it's obviously within the rules. If anything, I think the NCAA should start offering and extending loans to cover both insurances. I can't see a good reason why it's not already doing that.
As for Gordon, maybe some critics might say this was an incentive for him to stay at Wisconsin another year -- even if Gordon disagrees with that assertion. Quite frankly, I don't care either way. With all the issues in the NCAA, there are worse problems than giving talented players an incentive to stay in school and finish their degrees.
@ESPN_BigTen who wins in a boxing match between Scherff and Carl Davis?— Logan Wiegmann (@loganwiegmann) July 30, 2014
Josh Moyer: Oh, come on. What kind of question is that? Of course, with that monstrous strength, it would be Brandon Scherff -- but I'll say he wins in a split decision. All joking aside, though, I spoke to both Iowa players Tuesday at Big Ten media days, and I posed a question about who'd win in a one-on-one battle -- but on the gridiron, not in the boxing ring. Since Scherff's on the outside at offensive tackle and Carl Davis is inside at defensive tackle, they haven't gone at it since they were freshmen. But Davis dug into the hypothetical. Here's what he told me: "I'd definitely give it to Scherff as a player right now. He's a great player. The stuff he does, he's really matured as a player in his development. He's strong as a house. ... He's the better player."
So, quite frankly, if Scherff is a good enough pick for Davis, then it's good enough for me.
Brian from Altoona, Pennsylvania, writes: Penn State's pick for a new AD doesn't make any sense. Why would they go after her with her academic record? Am I missing something or is Penn State crazy?
Josh Moyer: There's no doubt about it -- picking former Cal AD Sandy Barbour was definitely a bit of a head-scratcher. Northwestern's Jim Phillips would've been the slam-dunk hire if PSU could've pried him away, while Barbour's kind of the unexpected consolation prize. She ended her career as Cal AD at a low point after the football team finished with the worst graduation rate (44 percent) among the nation's 72 major programs. Cal! As in Cal-Berkeley! It's a great school, so those numbers were not acceptable.
Penn State president Eric Barron blamed those numbers on Cal's budget crisis. And he's not necessarily wrong, as that definitely contributed to it all. But Barbour waited too long to address the issue. On the positive side, Penn State should be an "easier" school to oversee since fundraising should be a little easier between the football team's past tradition and success. And, keep in mind, most people didn't like the Bill O'Brien hire, either, when it was first announced.
All that being said, if I were in Barbour's position, I think it'd be smart if her first act as AD was to invest money into something academic-related -- whether it's a new studying lounge, more tutors, whatever. Academics are her biggest criticism right now, and she could help shift the conversation with a move that benefits education. Plus, even if the move might put PSU in the red a bit, how many people have actually ever said, "Gee, I wish we didn't invest as much in academics."? Seems like a win-win move to me. She starts Aug. 18 -- so we'll see how it goes.
Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the favorite as an $11 bet will net you just $10 profit. But for a confident Boilermakers fan? Well, a $1 bet will get you $300 if they come away with the championship. Purdue’s really not getting much respect here, as newcomers Rutgers (200/1) and Maryland (100/1) both boast the better odds to win the conference.
Penn State is sitting out these odds on account of its postseason ban, but there are definitely some interesting numbers here. And, hey, we want to keep those numbers interesting – so we also decided to match up each team’s bookmaker odds for some off-the-wall odds that are relatively similar.
Obviously, sports odds are a little different from regular odds, but we wanted to have some fun comparing and contrasting with this. So, without further ado, here are Bovada’s odds complemented with comparable real-life numbers:
Purdue 300/1 – The odds of dating a millionaire (1 in 225)
Rutgers 200/1 – The odds of being audited by the IRS (1 in 175)
Illinois 200/1 - Sportsbook odds that Uruguay's Luis Suarez would bite someone at the World Cup (175/1 - and it paid out!)
Indiana 100/1 – Odds of being on a plane with a drunken pilot (117 to 1)
Maryland 100/1 – Odds of being a twin in North America (1 in 90)
Minnesota 66/1 – Odds you’re in jail if you’re an American (1 in 50)
Northwestern 40/1 – Odds of rolling “snake eyes” in a game of craps (1 in 36)
Iowa 14/1 –Odds that you’re colorblind if you’re a man (1 in 12)
Michigan 9/1 – Odds that you have a tattoo (1 in 7)
Nebraska 11/2 – Odds that you’re obese if you live in Colorado (1 in 5)
Wisconsin 9/2 – Sportsbook odds that Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno would cry at Super Bowl 48 (8/2)
Michigan State 15/4 – Odds you work at a job where you never get a paid day off (4 in 16)
Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)
- A difference of opinion exists over which new division, East or West, most embodies Big Ten football.
- Ameer Abdullah, the featured speaker at the league's Kickoff Luncheon, is not your everyday college football player, writes Pat Forde. Abdullah illustrates the essence of the student-athlete.
- The NCAA should lift the bowl ban on Penn State, writes Dennis Dodd. Top takeaways from Chicago for Penn State.
- The revitalized Penn State-Rutgers rivalry won’t damage the friendship of coaches James Franklin and Kyle Flood. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell was a key figure in rebuilding the Rutgers program under Greg Schiano.
- Competition reins at Purdue in the preseason.
- Should Hazell and Illinois coach Tim Beckman feel the heat? Despite plenty of focus on the Illini’s unsettled quarterback spot, its defense may hold the key to success.
- Randy Edsall believes Maryland is ready to win now in the Big Ten. His coaching peers believe it, too. Terps receiver Stefon Diggs can relate to LeBron James.
- Ohio State players say their coach has changed his approach since arriving in Columbus 2 1/2 years ago. This OSU defensive line could resemble the 2006 group at Florida, says Urban Meyer.
- Nebraska plans to grind it out with a streamlined offensive playbook.
- Michigan coach Brady Hoke says De’Veon Smith will enter preseason camp with a slight edge over Derrick Green at running back. Before returning to national prominence, the Wolverines are working to first earn the respect of each other.
- How might Michigan State have finished last year in the College Football Playoff structure? No. 1, according to Mark Dantonio. The perception of MSU football is trending up.
- Indiana has plans to do more than just qualify for its second bowl game since 1993.
- Iowa’s Mark Weisman is a rock star. Or maybe just a rock. The summer of Scherff continues to gain momentum.
- Northwestern won’t budge in its hard-line stance on recruiting, even if it led to the loss of two elite prospects. The unionization topic won’t fade away for the Wildcats.
- A campus incident last year at Wisconsin has sparked discussion about regulating recruiting visits. A freshman looks set to play an important role on the Badgers’ stout offensive line.
- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is fit to coach from the sidelines. Impact freshmen for the Gophers.
The countdown started on Monday with the first five players and we climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday, setting the table for our next group of impact performers today.
No. 15: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern Wildcats: Mark is healthy and ready to go again for the Wildcats, and if there was a guarantee that he could return to the elite level he was at in 2012, the veteran rusher would surely be higher on the list. Instead he'll have to prove himself all over again this fall, though Mark will do so behind what should be an improved offensive line that could allow him to flash the explosiveness the Wildcats missed dearly last season.
No. 14: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers: In a league loaded with talented tailbacks, Indiana's dangerous, elusive rusher often goes overlooked. But Coleman is one of the most lethal weapons in the league when he's on the field, and despite playing in just nine games last season, he nearly topped 1,000 yards thanks to his eye-popping 7.3 yards per touch. If he can duplicate that again, the Hoosiers will keep racking up points and more attention will surely come his way.
No. 13: Carl Davis, DT, Iowa Hawkeyes: There may be some uncertainty behind him with Iowa breaking in three new starters at linebacker, but those fresh faces should benefit greatly thanks to the consistent work Davis can provide up front. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound, space-eating lineman doesn't accrue many individual statistics and was credited with just 41 tackles last year, but the job he does occupying blockers is invaluable for the rest of the Hawkeyes around him.
No. 12: Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Even without getting a chance to play the first two games as he wraps up a suspension, Spence still figures to challenge for the league lead in sacks by the time the season ends. The junior's incredible first step off the edge and a stacked group of Buckeyes on the defensive line will allow him to avoid double-teams, and that figures to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks as Spence tries to build on an eight-sack campaign last year.
No. 11: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland Terrapins: The Terps were stung repeatedly by critical injuries last season, but nothing might have hurt as much as seeing Diggs on the ground after breaking his leg against Wake Forest. Without his top-notch speed and ability to break free for big gains at any moment, Maryland's offense wasn't the same minus Diggs on the perimeter. He, too, will have to prove he's back to 100 percent. But Diggs has already suggested he's coming back even faster, which could make life miserable for a few defensive backs in the Big Ten.
Stay tuned as we move into the top 10 on Thursday ...
CHICAGO -- Big Ten media days are in the books and the countdown to the 2014 season can officially begin. It was a mostly uneventful session at the Hilton Chicago, despite the presence of stars such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun.
Our Big Ten reporting crew weighs in on some of the topics from the past two days.
What was the biggest surprise at Big Ten media days?
Austin Ward: The lack of major headlines coming from the league was a bit of a shock considering some of the star power in Chicago, the storylines around college football right now and the amount of trash talk between leagues that has popped up this month. Not even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer or Penn State coach James Franklin were able to stir the pot much nationally, and typically they are always good for a viral sound bite or hot topic in late July. There's nothing wrong with avoiding controversy, but the Big Ten didn't do much to draw attention to itself over two days.
Mitch Sherman: Other than the bright-red pants worn by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on Tuesday to go with his dark jacket and tie, I was surprised most by the lack of bravado we saw out of Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a blue-collar bunch and that this spot atop the Big Ten is new to them. But after a 13-1 season and set to play arguably the most significant nonconference game nationally on Sept. 6 at Oregon, I thought Michigan State would come to Chicago with a little more swagger. If coach Mark Dantonio hadn't worn his giant championship ring, I’m not sure I would have remembered that MSU beat Ohio State in December, then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This is not to suggest it's a bad thing; simply that the Spartans -- even flamboyant defensive end Shilique Calhoun -- are not resting on their accomplishments of 2013.
Josh Moyer: OK, let's say you pulled aside the top three offensive players in the Big Ten -- Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and asked them, in separate interviews, about the most exciting offensive player in the conference. Who do you think they would say? Well, their answer was my biggest surprise this week; they all said the same guy -- Indiana wideout Shane Wynn. Maybe they just wanted to put the spotlight on an underrated player, but it was still a shock to hear Wynn's name so often. Heck, I told Wynn about that -- and even he was surprised. It's fun to watch a short guy like Wynn, who is 5-foot-7, run circles around defenders. So while I thought Wynn would be in for a good season, I can't say I would've mentioned him in the same breath as those three.
Who had the most memorable interview?
Moyer: I have to go with Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert. He's the fastest player in the Big Ten, and he might just be the most charismatic. You couldn't blame Purdue if it came out a little quiet at this media day after the season the Boilermakers had, but Mostert didn't shy away from making some bold statements. He said his offense was capable of scoring 30-some points a game and, while I still think there’s zero chance of that happening, it takes some guts to make that statement. Plus, he was hilarious in talking about how far along Danny Etling’s come. He couldn't say enough good things about Etling now, but said last season he looked like a guy who just lost his dog every time he threw a pick. So my "Most Optimistic" and "Most Well-Spoken" awards go to Mostert.
Sherman: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was on fire Tuesday during the group session. Fitzgerald, always an eloquent speaker, had plenty to get off his chest in the wake of an offseason like no other in Evanston, Illinois. He waxed on about problems with the current model of college athletics, in particular criticizing some of the outdated rules that govern recruiting. "I don't want to be basketball," Fitzgerald said in the midst of his monologue. "We're going there." He harped on the disingenuous ways that some college coaches try to attract prospects. All of this after his players voted recently on whether to unionize. The issues of unionization and inequity within the sport are inseparable. Still, Fitzgerald managed keep his own players and former players largely out of the discussion. And the coach made a lot of sense.
Rittenberg: Well, my favorite moment was Michigan State's Connor Cook, midway through an answer Tuesday about how Dantonio had loosened up over time, stared blankly and said, "Sorry, my brain, I just blacked out right there." Must have been a fun Monday night in Chicago. ... I really enjoy Franklin's energy, especially in a league of mostly decaffeinated coaches. Franklin on Tuesday excitedly recalled the night the Penn State staff watched assistant Herb Hand appear on "Chopped" while riding a bus between their guest-coaching camp stops in the South. "It was awesome, we were driving and Herb comes walking out [on the show] and the whole bus explodes: 'Herbie! Herbie!'" Franklin said, clapping his hands. "The other guys come out and the whole bus is booing them, 'Boo! Boo!' So Herbie wins the first round and the bus goes crazy, 'That's our boy!' He loses the next round and that bus turned on him in an instant. Everybody's bashing him. His flavors were good but the presentation was awful." Again, something different and refreshing.
Ward: Calhoun had little interest in a standard question-and-answer interview, instead turning his podium session on Monday into an interactive experience that livened up the event while the Michigan State star was in the spotlight. He spent his 30 minutes joking, laughing and telling reporters how much he enjoyed watching them talk over each other to ask questions and then yelling across the room at Cook to clarify comments the quarterback had supposedly made about him earlier. In one brief session, Calhoun made the kind of memorable impact on the media he’s been known to make on opposing quarterbacks.
What's one new thing you learned?
Rittenberg: Big Ten teams aren't shying away from the playoff talk. Players, coaches and the commissioner all acknowledged that if you don't make the playoff, you're basically irrelevant in college football. And that's the right position for this league to take. The perception is that Big Ten players and coaches only care about the Rose Bowl and don't aim higher. Perhaps some of that is true, but most of the folks I encountered this week seemed to embrace the significance of the new system. I loved what Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said: Anything short of a national title would be disappointing. That's how the Big Ten needs to think.
Moyer: Nebraska's Kenny Bell has a killer Afro? Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond has great fashion sense? Penn State's Sam Ficken will never escape questions about the 2012 Virginia game? There were certainly a lot of tidbits. But I was impressed with how even-keeled Maryland coach Randy Edsall was. At one point, during podium interviews, an irate cameraman kept yelling at reporters to move out of his shot. It went on for a few minutes, but Edsall never paused or broke from his calm demeanor. Other coaches might have yelled for some quiet; Edsall just pretended like nothing was wrong. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
Ward: The Spartans have some really nice bling. Both Cook and Dantonio flashed their championship rings on Monday, and the huge, sparkling accessories were hard to miss. At one point Cook took his off to allow the media a closer look at the prize he helped earn with breakout passing outings against Ohio State in the conference title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but he might have really just needed a break from lugging around the heavy jewelry on his hand.
Sherman: Even in the age of the College Football Playoff, with more potential for sweeping change in the sport, old habits die hard in the Big Ten. From Michigan coach Brady Hoke's lamenting about the elimination of tradition at the Rose Bowl when Pasadena serves as a semifinal site to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz preaching the values of old-school football, the more things change nationally, the more they stay the same in the Big Ten. This is comforting and disturbing all at once. I heard Nebraska's Bell speak of unity among the league and Ohio State's Miller project confidence that the Buckeyes can make another run at a perfect season. But the league needs a larger dose of more progressive thinking.
So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?
S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."
LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
So, on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We'll have the defensive player poll later on Tuesday. Here are the offensive results.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- offensive player in the Big Ten?
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: "Ameer Abdullah. When we played them at Nebraska, watching him run around, he made our defense look bad. We had a pretty good defense this past year, and watching him run around, he was like a water bug. You couldn’t tackle him."
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: "Shane Wynn, that’s my boy. He also played in the Offense-Defense [All-American] Bowl with me and Melvin. So I’ve known Shane for a little while just like I’ve known Melvin. And Shane Wynn, he’s electrifying. He gets the ball in his hands, he can stop on a dime, he’s really fast, and he’s a really crafty route runner. So I like watching him play."
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa: "I’d say Braxton Miller or Melvin Gordon. Braxton makes those dead plays turn into 50-yard touchdowns. All those unreal plays. I remember last year playing him; he did some pretty unreal things. And Melvin Gordon is just a great football player. He’s tough and physical, and it’s fun to watch him."
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: "I know Shane Wynn, he’s here. He’s like a little midget over there [laughs]. That’s my friend; we’re good friends. He’s good, he’s explosive -- and you see how little he is? He can make a lot of plays, and it’s just fun to watch him. And I don’t know who else. Melvin Gordon, I’ve seen a couple highlights of him and he’s pretty solid, too. … If I had a chance to pick him or Carlos [Hyde], I don’t know. We’ll see. Well, Carlos, yeah, Carlos."
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.